Suddenly, A Knock at the Door starts out swinging. The eponymous story is up first, beginning this clever collection with a story both absurd and relatable, strange yet familiar. “Lieland” is next, a story with a quirky premise and heartfelt characters who learn something at the end. The third story, I remembered after the first line, was featured in McSweeney’s 37. Realizing “Bad Karma” and “A Good One” were also published in McSweeney’s books (the latter in the most recent issue, 40) contextualizes Etgar Keret’s collection of short-short stories for American readers who haven’t read his earlier collections. There’s a certain style McSweeney’s books cultivate, and it’s Keret to a T: clever, interesting, absurd, heartwarming, poignant. If you like those types of stories, you will love this collection.
If you think that the McSweeney’s style can get kitsch, you will be impressed by Keret. A few stories do not, unfortunately, balance the quirky-strange premise with the soul-eyed young male lead without a bit of kitsch, but these can be overlooked by the power of other stories. By the middle of the collection, the absurd and poignant square off in a way that can only happen in our realistic universe, one in which strange and sour things happen to perfectly nice people. It’s not kitsch: it’s bringing a fresh look at our daily lives.
One of the best examples of this was the story “Healthy Start,” in which a man recently dumped sits in a café every morning and invites to his table those in search of others whom they have never seen in person, waving them over as soon as their anxious eyes enter the door. The story is very short, and the questions a longer tale would have to deal with (where are the people they are supposed to be meeting? After they’ve been frauded, why does no one come back to complain?) are left out. The end of the story is not a plot resolve but a character one, shifting back to the lonely main character after paragraphs of focusing on interactions, with one of Keret’s signature killer last lines and a feeling of human understanding that many hundred-page stories never come close to. Many of Keret’s stories close like this, with a line that doesn’t pierce because it is startling or upsetting or a cliffhanger, but because it is perfect poised in the moment, completely understanding this human situation. These tales stuck to me like burrs, the faceless characters accumulating their pains and strange sorrows on my skin.
It is often just the peculiarity of the names that reminds us these stories were translated from the Hebrew, most taking place in Israel. Other times it is a reference to the war, a detail or image placed among the trivial that suddenly makes the universality of these tales specific to a region with a deep history. But in other tales it could just as well be New York or Zurich he is talking about. The short-short “What Do We Have in Our Pockets?” ends with the clause, “a tiny chance of saying yes and not being sorry.” It’s the kind of line only underlined if you can find it buried under a deep philosophical tirade, forgotten among mood shifts in a longer work. But this stood out in a story about a man who keeps a lot of crap in his pockets, a story four paragraphs long. The juxtaposition was shattering.
Not all of the stories hit so hard, or are so unique. They are all about young men, or no-longer-quite-so-young men. And some feel like thoughts that tried to be longer pieces but didn’t get beyond their three paragraphs, clever but ultimately not satisfying. But the humor amid the pain, the honesty among the cleverness in the majority of stories (“What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” is worth a mention) makes Keret’s latest collection a fine work by an accomplished writer. The collection had three translators: Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander, although disparity among the translations couldn’t be detected. Suddenly, A Knock on the Door is a knock-out, pardon the pun.
by Danielle Bukowski