Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger and Yardenne Greenspan
A child encourages a man to jump off the top of a building, believing that the man is a superhero and will fly. A man keeps the compacted wreck of a car in his living room. A goldfish comes down from his bowl to watch TV after the family has gone to bed.
Set mostly in Israel, these stories are snapshots of people’s lives, and some of them are surreal or futuristic, often with a bit of black humour thrown in. In “Dad with Mashed Potatoes”, a man turns into a rabbit. Literally. His children know what’s happened, but their mother doesn’t realize it and wants to give the rabbit to the pet shop, whom the children don’t trust. They have to find a way of saving their Dad and ensuring he doesn’t end up on someone’s dinner plate.
“GooDeed” examines the reasons people give to charity. A rich woman gives a homeless man 700 dollars and earns his gratitude. She tells her friends about how good it made her feel. Before long, they’re doing it too. “They were tired of making donations at those dreary charity balls their husbands always dragged them to, where they ended up getting a gold pin and a generic thank you from the mayor or an aging film star dragged out of mothballs for the occasion. They wanted the look, maybe even the hug—if it felt natural—from a man whose life they’d rescued from the sewer. Or, if not rescued, upgraded significantly.”
“Arctic Lizard” imagines the US a year after Donald Trump was elected to his third term, when “America was still licking its wounds from the war in Mexico”. Teenagers are being tempted to sign up to the army through a video game called Destromon Go, where they collect “master characters” on battlefields. The narrator is a teenager who has been fighting in Ukraine, Peru and Thailand, and is debating whom he should name in his will. He has, after all, got something to leave: 29 rare master characters, including the Armored Arctic Lizard, which “only someone who was in Bangkok on the day of the Silent Revolution” could have captured.
Scattered through the book is “Glitch at the End of the Galaxy”, the correspondence between Michael Warshavski wanting to take his mother to the eponymous show—an escape room—on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the manager Sefi Moreh insisting that the room will remain closed because of the holiday. It is funny in the way that these endless exchanges are, with one man determined to distract his mother on a day that is difficult for her and the other trying to stick to the rules.
I found the stories are clever and unusual, and will be looking out for more of Etgar Keret’s writing. He plays with our perception of reality. In some of the stories, the narrator’s view of their reality is completely upended when Keret pulls aside the curtain to reveal the full picture. (I thought the cover was interesting. At one level, it looks like the hole made in a circus tent by someone falling from the sky, but it could also be a ripping of a façade that hides reality.)
Ultimately, however, Keret’s focus is on people’s heartbreaks and despair, and their small triumphs and the deceptions. In other words, the everyday things that make up our lives.