“When I started writing I thought I was really, really fucked up,” Etgar Keret told me in between sips of his Earl Grey tea one Monday afternoon in November. “But so many people identify with my stories that I understood that all of us are really, really fucked up.”
The 34-year-old Israeli author, considered to be one of his country’s trendiest and most popular writers, doesn’t reject the eccentric—he embraces it. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, the first collection of his works translated into English, includes the mesmerizing tale of a beautiful uterus set free in the ocean by environmental terrorists, an angel who turns out to be just a liar with wings and a boy who names his piggy bank Margolis and loves it more than his parents.
Americans finally have a chance to find out just how fucked up they are.
When Keret began writing, his psyche was certainly not in a healthy place. To be more precise, it was in a basement five floors underground, working completely alone for 48-hour shifts on a job the Israeli Army code-named Quasimodo.
After several court martials for insubordination and insulting an officer (“my parents brought me up to ask questions and to judge things morally, and in the army that gets you into trouble,” Keret explains), he was assigned to monitor a machine in the military purgatory. This at an age when most American students aren’t monitoring anything more complicated than a keg stand.
“My job was supposed to be if the computer broke I was supposed to fix it, and in all the three years that I worked there it broke only once and I couldn’t fix it,” he joked as we chatted on the second floor of Cafe Algiers. “So, I wasn’t very helpful to the army.”
As the isolation took its toll, Keret began talking to himself and, eventually, putting pen to paper. He describes the original drafts as “kind of half-a-letter, half-a-memoir, half-I don’t know.” He continued writing them, because everybody said it was good for him, but he said he knew that no one was interested in his work.
“Everybody said, ‘They are not stories and, whatever they are, they’re not very good,’” Keret explained as he poked at his mostly uneaten slice of pecan pie (“it doesn’t taste very good,” he said softly so as not to offend the waitress, whom we still tipped generously).
It’s not terribly hard to absolve those early readers for not recognizing that the self-described “terrible soldier” would go on to become a celebrated Israeli author, screenwriter and director. His sometimes fantastical and always off-beat writings differ markedly from earlier, canonical Israeli authors.
“In Israeli literature, the characters are always heroic and sure and responsible and moral—they are always better than me,” Keret said. But in his stories, there is ambiguity and uncertainty. Especially when it comes to love.
“Crazy Glue,” one of Keret’s most hauntingly beautiful tales, which is unforgivably omitted from this collection, begins with an adulterous husband who asks his wife why she bought special glue. “‘For the same reason I married you,’ she murmured. ‘To help pass the time.’” When he returns from work that evening, he can’t move a chair to sit in, open the door of the refrigerator, or lift the phone receiver to call the police. And then, he hears his wife, hanging upside down from the ceiling, laughing. He makes a stack of books to climb on and get his wife down, when he realizes:
She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside-down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downwards, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books tumbled out from under my feet, but I stayed floating in midair, hanging just from her lips.
Keret refers to the ambiguous end of the story as an example of the difficulties of love: “It’s beautiful and it’s lovely, but on the other hand, those people are hanging from their skin. It’s beautiful and horrible at the same time.”
The cover of his new collection of 21 short stories and a novella illustrates this philosophy graphically. A cartoon man with an enormous smiley face shoots himself with a handgun in the left temple as blood emerges from the right. It’s a startling visual collision of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” meets Columbine. Add in the collection’s novella about an afterlife for those who commit suicide, cheerfully entitled “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” and it seems fair to ask if Keret’s public should be worried about his obsession with suicide.
“I think the question whether or not to commit suicide is a good question,” he says. “And for me the good answer is not to commit suicide and to lead a life worth living.” But the graphic on his book still stands as a more-than-adequate metaphor for his life. “Things are not either ‘this is great’ or ‘I should commit suicide,’ they’re either boring or a bit of both. They’re great and you want to commit suicide at the same time.”
* * *
Etgar Keret is an unlikely suspect for cultural icon.
Arriving nine minutes early for the interview, with some sort of green food particle stuck between his right central and lateral incisors, Keret explains that he didn’t want to meet in Lowell dining hall because of the bad memories it would evoke of his days in the military mess halls. He removes his puffy green jacket (having been acclimated to American winters from his residency at the prestigious University of Iowa International Writing Program), revealing a red long-john shirt underneath another made of flannel. The sideburns dangling from his mop of unkempt hair show the faintest wisps of gray.
And when Keret opens his mouth, it’s difficult to do anything but listen to him. Speaking in English, he has a slight stutter, an inability to pronounce the “th” sound and the gift of capturing a certain mood in millennial Western society where a person is more likely to be lonely than not, in love with love than with a person and feel adrift rather than anchored.
He was born in Ramat Gan in 1967—the year of a major Middle East war in which Israel conquered and occupied the Palestinian territories—to two Holocaust survivors who instilled in him and his two siblings “ambition, but not for anything in particular.” The result is that Keret has an ultra-orthodox sister who lives in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim with nine children and a brother who is the head of Israel’s marijuana legalization movement.
After the army, Keret began to work for a construction company to pay for his tuition at Tel Aviv University where he studied mathematics and philosophy. But the course of his life had already been predicted by the first story he ever wrote, a surrealistically autobiographical story composed five floors below ground entitled “Pipes.”
In “Pipes,” a high school graduate working in a pipe factory discovers that if he bends a pipe in a specific manner, marbles will roll into it and then disappear. The protagonist—one of the many characters in Keret’s stories who feel like an outsider and simply want to disappear—makes a giant pipe in the same shape, climbs inside, and ends up in heaven, which he describes as “simply a place for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth.”
“‘Pipes’ was really a story about me being very, very unhappy and knowingthat I have to find a way to another place to survive, and that other place, I think, is the stories.” Keret adds: “Because my pipes are definitely the stories.”
Within his stories, Keret lavishes affection on his characters as if they were newborn children. “I really love my characters—all my characters—and it’s difficult for me when people say, ‘I really like the story about this asshole,’ and they think that I think he’s an asshole, too. But I don’t, I really like him.”
Keret believes that the source of the confusion is his un-American use of irony: “I use irony to actually create empathy, but in America I find people who see the irony as more hateful. In the States, people read the irony of my stories as patronizing and disrespectful for the object of the irony.”
His use of irony is often laugh-out-loud funny, which led Keret to a successful stint as a comedy writer for an Israeli comedy show resembling “Saturday Night Live.” He arrived there from a failed attempt reporting at a television news-magazine show.
“Every time they would send me out to do pieces that are very clear cut for them—like it was a killer or something like that—I would come back with this very ambivalent piece. I would show his side and show empathy for him and it’s really not good for ratings, because to be good for ratings you need to be very one-sided.”
Keret says they didn’t lay him off only because “they really liked me and they really had this thought that if they would fire me I wouldn’t find any other job.”
But Keret not only found work in TV and books, he’s also made a showing in the motion picture world. He lectures at Tel Aviv University’s School of Film and has made a number of award-winning short- and full-length films.
His upcoming project is a film called $9.99, about a man who buys a book for $9.99 that he thinks will reveal to him the meaning of life. In Keret’s cinematographic world, the book actually does tell him the meaning of life.
As with any Keret work, there is a twist—the movie will use puppet animation. “The story has a very fairy-tale quality to it, I really wanted to mix fantastical elements with realistic ones, but I didn’t want the fantastic ones to stick out. But with puppet animation, all the strange things are normal,” he says.
* * *
It’s not often that an author’s name encapsulates the essence of his work, but due to his birth by caesarean section three months prematurely, Keret’s does. Because of his unusual birth—doctors said he would be still-born—they named him Etgar, which means “challenge” in Hebrew. His last name means “big city.” So his full name means “urban challenge.” “They can name sneakers after me,” Keret jokes.
But Keret’s work truly does address the principal challenge of modernity: how to connect and find meaning in a society where everyone is lonely and alienatedfrom one another?
“I see people that are more interested in life on soap operas than they are in their own surroundings,” Keret said. “These people care more about TV than they do about the homeless.”
His stories advocate not a withdrawal from the urban challenges of life, but a confrontation of them and an acquiescence to their existence in a world that still has boundless opportunities for happiness.
“It’s very scary to be a human being,” Keret admits. “But there’s also something very beautiful about it.”
Although his stories uncompromisingly describe the former aspect of mortal existence, they leave the reader with a lasting sense of hope in the veracity of the latter.
“They’re like commercials for life,” Keret says. “Life: you should try it sometime.”
THE BUS DRIVER WHO WANTED TO BE GOD
St. Martin’s Press
176 pp., $19.95