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Jellyfish's Etgar Keret: The Wizard of Id

Kevin Scanlon

In “Fatso,” a short story by Israeli writer Etgar Keret, monogamy takes a bizarre vacation when the narrator’s pretty girlfriend morphs, every night, into a hairy, beer-guzzling, macho soccer fanatic who takes her lover to steak restaurants and sleazy bars — an experience as unexpectedly delightful to him as the fact that he has his girlfriend back by morning. At three and a half pages, “Fatso,” which was first published in the United States in L.A. Weekly and appears in Keret’s 2006 collection The Nimrod Flipout, is average length for a Keret short story. He writes in the voice of a rootless, bamboozled young male, but his juggling of the prosaic and the fanciful is sly, and his moods are many, with haplessness and blind fury clocking in way ahead of the rest. Like most of Keret’s work, “Fatso” will make you laugh, then wipe the smile off your face with its calculated manipulation of fear, desire and aggression, and its wistful paean to the insufficiency of human relationships.

Kevin Scanlon

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

In the Fish bowl

Fighting jet lag in the lobby of the discreetly swank Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica, Keret, who’s 40, looks a little like the rumpled slackers who people his stories. “Some people write from the brain or the heart. I write from the kishkes,” he says cheerfully in accented but flowing English. “Telling a story is the easiest thing. The moment there is an emotion I can name, I can give you 20 stories to choose from. I always start from a sensation, an image, never a plot. For some writers, the act of writing is like construction or engineering, building consciously. For me, it’s the exact opposite. The best metaphor is surfing. You go to the ocean, wait for some wave to hit you, and try to keep your balance. You don’t have GPS or a map. It’s like exploding, and you can’t explode slowly.”

It’s true that Keret’s short, sharp stories seem to spring fully formed from his unconscious onto the page. Visceral, prankish, angry and sad, blithely shifting between real and surreal, recklessly courting whimsy, his tales of Tel Aviv lost souls abound with suicide, depression, parental inadequacy, verbal and physical violence, breakups and divorces, nameless anxieties. His stories, and the short films he makes when he finishes a batch — his first feature, Jellyfish, is released this week — are enormously popular in Israel, not least because they represent a sharp break from the collectivist political concerns of more-traditional realist writers like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua who came of age during the country’s formative socialist period, or even the younger and formally more adventurous David Grossman. And in the relatively new state of Israel, where novelists still function as the political and social conscience of a nation of prodigious readers, literature has mattered from the word go. “There’s no other country that was basically invented by writers,” says Keret, citing the founding Zionist, Theodor Herzl, who wrote a blueprint for his dream of the Jewish state, albeit to be established in Uganda. “Both Israel and Tel Aviv existed in books before they existed in reality.”

The domestic dysfunction in Keret’s stories will be easily recognizable to Western readers, but it is uncomfortably fresh terrain to older Israelis reared on consensus and a self-conscious literature of collective identity. I hardly recognize the Israel in his work as the country I grew up in during the early 1950s, or even the one where I returned to live in the early 1970s, when the Yom Kippur War shattered the country’s military triumphalism, and successive waves of immigration from the Soviet Union and other countries began Israel’s transformation from its Ashkenazi sovereignty over Sephardic Jews and Israeli Arabs into the far more chaotic melting pot that informs the work of a whole new generation of Israeli writers and artists. And that was without the influx throughout the 1990s of thousands of guest workers from all over the world, and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

“The transformation of Israel from a socialist to a capitalist society was something that created a wound,” Keret insists. His writing probes that wound in the private sphere and in its own disenchanted language, inflected with playful allusions to American pop culture and an abiding sense of self-destructive violence. The Nimrod Flipout’s hilarious, ineffably sad title story — which, at 24 pages, is practically a novella by Keret’s standards — centers on three aimless army graduates successively afflicted by a contagious post-traumatic-stress disorder stemming from their lingering grief over the suicide of a comrade. And in Keret’s new collection, The Girl on the Fridge, a Mossad agent turns his suspicion on the only person left in his paranoid world to mistrust — himself.

Keret’s preoccupation with violence, and the deceptively flippant slapstick with which it unfolds, have not sat well with some of Israel’s veteran writers. Though Oz is a strong defender of his work, Yehoshua publicly attacked Keret’s 1992 debut collection of stories, Pipelines, complaining that its brutality was something Keret had picked up from American movies rather than from anything in Israeli culture itself. “I write about the violence that I grew up with,” Keret says matter-of-factly. “In a country where, for three years out of their lives, everybody who is 18 lives in a reality where he may kill people or see people get killed next to him, he may do things Americans would never do. I didn’t serve in the occupied territories, but people who do know that if you knock on a door and it doesn’t open, you kick it open. You can play the guitar, read Nietzsche, become a very good dentist, but you’ll still do it. And once you cross that line, it’s very difficult to uncross it. When your girlfriend won’t talk to you and locks the door, you will still know how to kick it open.”

And none of this is new, Keret argues. To those who say that there was no domestic abuse or violence in the early days of the Israeli state, he responds, “That’s not because people didn’t do it, but because it was legitimized. Fondling breasts was considered no more than a prank for an army commander. It was a society that found it difficult to acknowledge its vices.” As if to confirm Keret’s diagnosis, two weeks ago former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who reluctantly stepped down in June of last year after avoiding rape charges by copping a plea to sexual harassment of female staffers, reversed his position and will go to trial “to defend his name.”

Even more aggravating to Yehoshua is the fact that Keret’s literary influences come from the Jewish Diaspora rather than from a coherent Israeli identity. It’s true that the Keret kishkes are highly cultivated organs, influenced as much by Freud and Kafka as by all of the Marx Brothers, Karl included. Writing in the Jewish newspaper Forward, Stephen Marche observes, rather beautifully, of Keret, “Kafka said that literature should be an ax to break the frozen sea within us. Keret is a writer wailing at the ice with a Wiffle Ball bat.” Keret, whose parents are both Holocaust survivors, is defiantly proud of his Diaspora-Jewish heritage, and he laments the declining influence of philosophers and intellectuals on Israeli culture. “We used to be the people of the book,” he says passionately. “Now we are the country with the strongest army in the world, the most prosperous high-tech industry. We have farmers and generals leading us, and we take materialism for granted.”

Keret openly rejects the idea that Israel is a civilized democracy, superior to the medieval barbarians who surround it. “I can’t accept Yehoshua’s notion of the Israeli as a kind of upgraded Jew,” he says, “and I’m suspicious of someone who claims that Jews are superior to gentiles or Israeli writers better than any other.” Keret has many friends who have left Israel (still the ultimate betrayal of the state, next to wriggling out of army service), and, though he himself has no intention of leaving, he says, “I can’t say they’re making the wrong decision.” Along with many left-leaning Israelis of his age and younger, Keret feels no obligation, as their elders who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust did, to present a united front to the outside world. He resists the word “generation,” pointing out that an Orthodox Jewess and an Israeli Arab have nothing in common but their youth. But there’s no question that Keret’s work has a particular appeal for young people who have grown up in the fragmented worlds that haunt his stories.

“We are all second generation,” says one mournful soul in Jellyfish, written and co-directed by Keret’s wife, Shira Geffen, who’s traveling with him but remained in New York with their young son. Perhaps because it was written by a woman, Jellyfish is softer, more feminine and elegiac in tone, less inclined to jolt or goose the viewer than Keret’s stories. Still, like the recent hit The Band’s Visit, it belongs to a new breed of Israeli movies — domestic rather than political in focus, and formally more sophisticated than the realist war dramas and blunt comedies that until recently kept Israeli cinema in the boondocks of international cinema. There’s no mistaking the addled suffering of the three floundering women at the movie’s center — a waitress trying to reconnect with her damaged childhood self, an inexperienced bride on her honeymoon and a Filipina maid longing to return home to her little boy. Along with a sizable ensemble of equally lost ancillary characters who rattle around Tel Aviv, crossing paths as they struggle, in Keret’s words, “to make a life out of nothing,” these women will be entirely familiar to his fans, as will the film’s guiding metaphor — a boneless, see-through fish that can’t control its movements, that stings reactively rather than with malice, because it is vulnerable.

“I have a very strong empathy for all the characters, even though they do horrible things to each other,” says Keret. What stands out in Jellyfish, as in Keret’s writing, is the twisted but potent love of family — distant mothers, incompetent fathers, stuck adult children who can’t or won’t transcend their troubled early years. The movie grew out of a childhood experience in which Geffen’s parents, who later divorced, had a fight and left her alone on the beach for a few minutes with the fear that the ocean would carry her away. Like many Israelis, both Keret and Geffen come from families with built-in melodrama, though their sensibilities are radically different. “My wife would say we’re living in a romantic comedy,” he says. “I’d say no, no, we’re living in a high-budget drama.”

Geffen, a playwright and poet, is descended from what passes for Israeli royalty. “Like the Kennedys, only without the money,” Keret says, grinning. Her grandmother was Moshe Dayan’s sister, her father the writer and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen; her brother is Israeli rock superstar Aviv Geffen, another outspoken voice of alienated Israeli youth. Keret’s mother lost both her parents and her brother in the Warsaw Ghetto; his handsome 80-year-old father, who once operated canteens at a Tel Aviv swimming pool and has a small but pivotal role in Jellyfish as a man selling ice cream on the beach, passed the war “hiding in a hole in the ground.” Their experiences equipped them poorly for parenthood, Keret says candidly, and they made every mistake possible in raising their kids. He shrugs. “As a parent, you’re going to fuck up your child’s life. It’s a given, and it’s just a question of how.” But, he says, “if you love someone strongly enough, it doesn’t matter.” I don’t have the kishkes to ask if he’s undergone psychoanalysis.

Certainly, Keret’s parents must have been doing something right. Their oldest son, Nimrod, a dope-smoking “certified genius” who earned his B.A. at age 15 and lived with three women “and orgies” in an apartment not much later, became an antiwar activist and founder of the Green Leaf Party, which seeks to legalize marijuana in Israel. Keret, who looks like a slightly rakish nerd, had hoped for a similar future, but “at 15 I was in high school and had zits.” Though the Kerets grew up secular, his sister, Dana, turned to Orthodoxy, and at age 45 has 11 children and two grandchildren; though she remains close to her brother, she is forbidden to read his transgressive fiction. Keret himself was given the unusual name Etgar, which in Hebrew means “challenge,” when, after three miscarriages, his mother refused a doctor’s advice to terminate her fourth dangerous pregnancy. (“Not a good name to pass basic training with,” Keret says drily, “when your commander says ‘You need a challenge? Go clean the toilets.’ ”) Though his parents loved art and reading, they didn’t encourage artistic ambition in their son, who was supposed to enter Haifa’s Technion to study engineering. But coming home from a bar mitzvah one night when Keret was a child, his father told him, “If, 20 years from now, you’ll be a rich doctor with a beautiful wife and a beautiful house and have healthy children and that’s it, then I’ll be very disappointed in you.”

The beautiful wife and the healthy kid are now in place, but that is very far from it. Jellyfish won the Caméra d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes last year, and has done robust niche business in Israel and in limited release in France, Italy (where it was released by the noted director Nanni Moretti) and New York. Keret has spent time at the International Writers Workshop in Iowa, and his stories now appear in the Paris Review and get reviewed in all the top book supplements. A new collection of stories from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Girl on the Fridge, is excerpted in these pages. And he will go on making films, a welcome relief from the lonely egocentrism of writing fiction, whenever he has the time. You could say that Etgar Keret has risen to his challenge.

Click here for links to seven short stories — and other articles — by Etgar Keret that have appeared in L.A. Weekly.