Genre in the Mainstream

Genre in the Mainstream: The Shape Shifting Prose of Etgar Keret

If you’ve listened to Etgar Keret on This American Life or heard him read one of his stories, the first thing you’ll notice, despite his heavy Israeli accent, is his sense of humor. Keret’s is the kind of voice that sounds like he’s constantly getting ready to deliver a punch line and the majority of his stories are much the same. I’ve seen Keret read a number of times in person, and the first time, I didn’t have a clear idea of what he looked like. I kept scanning the small room of confident looking guys with smart fitting jackets. Instead, a mad scientist of a man arrived with copies of his own books sticking out of his coat pockets. The story he read that day was called “Fatso” which is about a woman who shapeshifts into a ridiculously disgusting beer-guzzling man when the clock strikes midnight.

Keret’s fantastical musing doesn’t end there. Here’s why SF readers will probably love him.

To date, Keret hasn’t written any novel-length works and most of his short fiction is very, very brief. Sometimes stories are only a page. In one live interview I attended between the author and Ira Glass at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Keret related a story about people coming up to him in Israel and accusing him of writing stories that were “too short” and that they could “write a story that short myself.” Keret’s retort to that was “Yes, I’m sure you could, but now you don’t have to. I’ve written it for you.” As I mentioned, Keret’s humor is integral to how his prose functions, but in addition to the jokes, more often than not, a fanatical premise is at the heart of many of his stories. Sometimes people are dining in restaurants in which talking fish are on the menu, other times men are endowed with powers enabling them to make anyone they meet fall in love with them. In a particularly horrifying story, a disemboweled soldier is revealed to have the insides of a piñata instead of human organs.

Perhaps the most chilling of Keret’s black humor is found in the novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers.” Later adapted into the film Wristcutters: A Love Story, the story revolves around a sort of after-life dimension populated by nothing but suicides. The way in which each character off-ed themselves is also made apparent by their physical appearance, with massive wounds visible for all to see. Many of the characters make friends with other suicides in this world, and some even fall in love. The title character has organized a sort of camp in which these lost souls can somehow learn to live with this situation without being in complete despair. Despite the morbid and macabre trappings of this story, much of it is extremely funny. Also, the specificity of the kind of afterlife it presents seems to entertain the notion of separate dimensions beyond life that operate under different kinds of rules.

Keret is a big fan of SF, and when I spoke to him last year for Clarkesworld Magazine, he listed a number of his favorite authors growing up, most of which were science fiction writers. Keret also considers the Hugo Award to be one of the highest honors an author can achieve, and many of his stories throughout the years would certainly be eligible. But beyond the SF elements present in nearly every single one of his short pieces of fiction, Keret is simply one of the best short story writers living today. The deception of his stories is that after you’ve read them, they don’t seem short. It seems like you lived with those characters and themes for much longer than a few pages. Like all good reading, Keret creates a time portal with his prose where the amount of time the reader spends inside of his head is unclear. The best short fiction, for me, creates a little pocket universe the reader can inhabit for an indefinite amount of time, while the prose itself is finite. The magic here is that so much can be contained inside of so little, and if you dive into the short fiction of Etgar Keret, you’ll see what I mean.

In America, there are three collections of Keret’s work available.(Some stand-alone novellas are exist as well.) The first is titled The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, the second The Nimrod Flipout, and the most recent The Girl on the Fridge. I would probably recommend one starts with The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, if only because it contains the epic “Kneller’s Happy Campers.” However, each and every book contains this young author’s wonderful imagination. Indeed, if you find yourself becoming a fan of this author’s magical realism stylings; the journey doesn’t have to end with books. Keret also directed the beautiful film Jellyfish which was written by his wife Shira Geffen. It tells the story of a mute girl who magically emerges out of the sea. The unearthly quality to this movie is haunting and certainly in keeping with Keret’s bizarre and fantastically view of the universe.

In any medium, Keret is one of the most unique living authors out there today. Pick up one of his books. If you don’t end up liking it, the stories are extremely short, so you’ll have wasted almost no time at all.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for


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