Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Etgar Keret's Suddenly a Knock on the Door

Etgar Keret, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

An irksome impediment to the short-story reader’s pleasure and the short-story writer’s profit is that reading a single good short story is a huge draft on the reader’s intellectual and emotional energy; reading several short stories, one after another, in a single volume, is daunting and exhausting.  The American writer and editor, William Dean Howells, in a piece entitled “Anomalies of the Short Story,” published in 1897 (available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg) expressed this problem rather well:

“One of the most amusing questions concerning the short story is why a form which is singly so attractive that every one likes to read a short story when he finds it alone is collectively so repellent as it is said to be….
“I believe that [reader] indolence or intellectual reluctance is largely to blame for the failure of good books of short stories. [The reader] is commonly so averse to any imaginative exertion that he finds it a hardship to respond to that peculiar demand which a book of good short stories makes upon him. He can read one good short story in a magazine with refreshment, and a pleasant sense of excitement, in the sort of spur it gives to his own constructive faculty. But, if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories, he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies; whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable sedative.”

If, as in Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door, the number of stories is cranked up to thirty-five in a small collection of 188 pages, you know you have your work cut out for you.  The reader may experience so much imaginative exertion here that the danger of becoming fluttered and exhausted about half way through is a real possibility.  As Howells says, a continuous fiction (i.e., a novel) acts as an agreeable sedative, but Keret’s book disturbs the reader with thirty-five wakeup calls

I had only read a few Keret stories--those that have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, magazines to which I subscribe--before reading Suddenly a Knock on the Door.  However, a Google and Lexis Nexis search of reviews indicates that he has a big name for these little stories in Israel, and, if you believe back jacket blurbs, has been given high praise by the likes of Amos Oz and Salman Rushdie. 

Although not as widely reviewed in other English-speaking newspapers as Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (more about that next week), Steven Almond raved about Suddenly a Knock on the Door in The New York Times, and Carolyn Kellogg said in The Los Angeles Times, “If you have room in your heart, wallet, or reading list for just one book of short stories this year, make it Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door.” (Sad to say, most folks seldom have room in their heart for more than one book of short stories.)

Although I must admit I bogged down about half way through the book, I was having a heck of a good time for the first hundred pages or so.  And most reviewers obviously had a good time with the book also.  However, the usual way they talk about the stories is to compare Keret to other writers who write “this kind of story”—Franz Kafka, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Lydia Davis, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.—and to summarize, usually in a sentence or two, the plots of some of the stories.  

And, indeed, these are concept stories, idea stories, what-if stories, think-about-this stories, e.g. a woman discovers a zipper under her lover’s tongue, a man is made to face his lies, God is seen as a cripple in a wheelchair, a hemorrhoid develops to such an extent that it suffers from a man, and so on and so on. Some stories work better than others; some just fall flat; some seem more ordinary than magical, some are just cute and clever rather than revelatory and brilliant.  However, as uneven as the book may be, it only takes a few really fine stories to make the reading worthwhile.

Keret has said that what he wants to hold on to in his fiction is “some kind of complexity and ambiguity.”  And he seems convinced that the short story is the best form with which to explore complexity and ambiguity.  Although he says that everyone—his agent, his publisher, and his bank manager—want him to write a novel, he feels he would not be able to write it from the “same place” he writes his stories:

“There’s something about fiction that has a function in my life and which dictates the type of stuff I write, and if I wrote a novel, I wouldn’t be able to commit to the kinds of things that exist in my stories.  My novel wouldn’t represent me the way the stories do.  The place they represent is a place of honesty. … The bottom line is I love this experience of just being within the realm of short-story fiction, and it’s difficult to give up.  Whatever else is going to happen, this is something I’ll keep.”

With all the pressure on writers to write novels, this is admirable dedication to the often-ignored form. I do not see how any one of the stories could be a continuous fiction; they are conceived and made to be short—short like a joke, ala Woody Allen; short like a parable, ala Franz Kafka; short like a koan, ala Lydia Davis; short like a fable, ala Donald Barthelme.

In his little pamphlet of a book, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, Russian formalist B. M. Ejxenbaum insisted that the novel and short story are forms “not only different in kind but also inherently at odds…. The novel is a syncretic form…the short story is a fundamental, elementary (which is not to say primitive) form.”  Ejxenbaum recognized the importance of the ending of a short story, noting that, “by its very essence, the story, just as the anecdote, amasses its whole weight toward the ending…. Short story is a term referring exclusively to plot, one assuming a combination of two conditions:  small size and plot impact on the ending.”  If we accept Ejxenbaum’s characterization of the short story as a genre, then we might accept Keret’s stories—at least the best ones-- as quintessential short stories.

Here are two of my favorite stories in the collection, which, just coincidentally, happen to be the first two stories in the book:

“Suddenly a Knock on the Door”:

I like it that the first story in this collection begins with the universal request: “Tell me a story.”  Since the bearded man making this request is holding a gun in his hand, the demand on the writer is as old as that made on Scherazade in Thousand and One Nights.  In short, telling a story is a matter of life and death.  Keret includes a little bit of politics here when the writer recognizes that in the Middle East brute force is the only language understood, but politics is not the focus of the story. The writer begins making a story out of the present situation, introducing the necessary plot complication: “Two people are sitting in a room.  Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.”  And sure enough at that moment there is a knock on the door; it is a young man doing a survey, and the writer tries to send him away. Accusing the writer of race prejudice for accepting a Swede and sending away a Moroccan, the pollster pulls out his own pistol and also demands a story.

 Continuing with the storyteller’s compulsion to transform the present situation into a story, he begins again: “Three people are sitting in a room,” but the Swede interrupts that he wants no “Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.”  Then, of course, there is a knock on the door, and it’s a pizza delivery guy; the pollster and the Swede know he wants a story also, and when they tell him to go ahead and pull out his pistol, he pulls out a meat cleaver instead, and all three insist on hearing a story.

When for the third time the writer begins to transform the situation into fiction, beginning “Four people are sitting in a room,” the pollster protests, “That’s not a story.  That’s an eyewitness report.  It’s exactly what’s happening here right now.” He tells the writer that that is exactly what they are trying to run away from: “Don’t you go and dump reality on us, like a garbage truck.  Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way.”  The writer begins again, this time describing a man sitting in a room who wants to write a story, for he misses the feeling of creating something out of something. Something out of something, he says, “means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover a part of something new that’s never happened before.  The writer wants to write a story about the human situation, the human condition, but cannot because the human condition he is experiencing right now does not seem to be wroth a story, and he is just about to give up….when the Swede interrupts him with “No knock on the door.” The write says he must, for without a knock on the door there is no story. The pizza guy says o.k. as long as the knock on the door brings them a story.


Robbie tells his first at age seven when his mother sends him to the store to get a pack of cigs, but he gets an ice cream instead, hiding the change under a big white stone in the yard.  Robbie tells her a giant redheaded kid with a missing tooth took the money; it is the specificity of the description that makes her believe him. What makes a good liar is what makes a good storyteller—concrete detail. Once when late for work he says that he found a German shepherd beside the road paralyzed in two legs and he had to take it to the vet.

As a grown man, he has a dream in which his dead mother asks him to get her a gumball, but he has no change until he remembers the change he hid under the rock.  When he wakes up and goes to the stone, under it he finds a hole the size of a grapefruit with a light shining out of it.  He reaches in and finds the handle of a gumball machine, but when he turns it nothing comes out.  Instead, he is transported to the place of his mother’s dreams, made up of white walls and a giant gumball machine where he sees a redheaded boy with a missing tooth who kicks him in the shins. As he limps away, he sees a German shepherd paralyzed in two legs and a skinny old man with a glass eye and no arms, who is, it turns out, someone else’s lie.

The old man tells him the gumball machine only takes liras, and he gives some to Robbie, saying if Robbie had not made up the lie about the dog, he would be alone.  Robbie goes to the gumball machine, drops in a lira, and finds himself stretched out on the ground by the hole; when he pulls his hand out, it has a red gumball in it, but h is mother does not return to claim it.

He starts telling positive lies, but few believe him, for, as he says, when you tell people something bad they think it is normal, but if you tell them something good, they get suspicious.  So he stops lying altogether.  He finds the girl who told a lie about the old man with one eye and no arms, and takes her down the rabbit hole, as it were, to meet him. She is remorseful for her lie, but the old man reassures her that he has enjoyed every minute of the life she invented for him. She decides to take care of him and asks Robbie to help her.  He knows he will have to tell a lie at work to go with her, but he knows it will be a “happy lie, full of light, flowers, and sunshine.  And who knows—maybe even a baby or two, and they’d be smiling.”  This is, of course, a “they lived happily ever after” story, which explores the paradox that lies can become more real than truth.

What makes Keret the quintessential storyteller is his obsessive theme of the superiority of story to so-called reality.  I am currently reading several books on the nature of story that explore story’s primal importance to human experience.  As soon as I complete these comments on the six shortlisted Frank O’Connor Award collections, I will spend some time sharing with you what I have learned.

1 comment:

Mia Funk said...

Hello Charles,

I'm getting in touch regarding the possibility of excerpting your piece on Etgar Keret in www.creativeprocess.info (site in the process of a redesign & being repopulated, so more content can be found here: https://thecreativeprocess.squarespace.com).

Looking forward to hearing from you,