(Photo by Bridget Gutteridge-Hingston)
Pity the short story. What should be a bracing, spring-loaded burst of storytelling—the literary equivalent of one of those 5-hour-energy shots you find at gas stations, next to the cash register—is too often stretched out into an overblown novel in miniature. This does the form a major disservice. The reader, too. We already know, for instance, that sitcoms are not the same as feature films; a song is not an album. These are totally different beasts, each with its own unique user’s manual. Different strengths and weaknesses. Why don’t we treat fiction the same way?
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door does not act like a series of mini-novels. No sir. In fact, the fourth collection of Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s to be translated into English makes better use of the inherent strengths of the short story than any collection I’ve read in at least a year. Wondrous, wide-eyed, and never without a spring in its step, this is a magical little book.
The first thing to notice is that Keret doesn’t include any of those ornate little trappings, so common in the padded-out world of the novel, around the edges of his stories. Instead, he lops off the boring bits at the beginning and end, and leaves us only the action-packed middles, the good stuff. No need to methodically explain the rules of these worlds he’s created; just drop us in, get the job done, and then bring us back home.
This is explicitly laid out in the title piece, when a series of burglars storm into a writer’s living room, aim guns (and a meat cleaver) at him, then demand to be told a story—“and make it quick.”
And quick they are: 35 over 190 pages. Now, part of the fun comes from precisely that feeling of being constantly pulled around, just as you’re starting to get your bearings. Keret has a tremendous sense of timing and suspense, and knows just when to pull the plug. But he’s also got a wild imagination. You get the sense he’s just that impatient to show us what’s around the next corner.
This also explains why the final sentences of the stories tend to hit like haymakers. Sometimes the entire premise is suddenly revealed, as in the absurd yet cosmically just child-murderer story “One Step Beyond.” And “The Story, Victorious II” only contains one sentence to begin with. I literally shuddered, in the butterfly-effect-via-fast-food-restaurant tale “Cheesus Christ” (one of my favourites), at “Somewhere on the other side of the world, evil winds began to blow.”
Mostly, though, what I love about Keret is how clearly he runs on intuition. These stories are broadly about family, infidelity, and the pockets of absurdity in modern life, but they pivot and reinvent themselves so quickly that it’s obvious even Keret himself can’t see more than a sentence or two ahead. That means we’re able to share his writerly “Eureka!” moments in what feels like real time.
As I said at the top, short stories have real, unique powers. But it takes a writer as good as Keret to remind us of just how intoxicating and marvellously inclusive those powers can be.
Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 192 pp, $15.50, paperback
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, July 26, 2012)