A few of the precise and often startling stories in Iddo Gefen’s excellent debut collection may remind some readers of Etgar Keret’s whimsical approach to life’s absurdities, but Gefen’s voice is assuredly unique among younger Israeli writers whose short stories often seem to contain the deep emotional complexities of entire novels. A recipient of the Israeli Minister of Culture Award, Gefen’s disquieting plots and sharply observed characters are subtly interwoven with philosophical insights into memory, consciousness, and dreamworlds gleaned from his other professional vocatio, as a neurocognitive researcher into augmented reality.
A great deal of Israeli literature centers on the travails of family life, especially the destruction of childhood innocence in the aftermath of war. In that regard, Gefen’s Jerusalem Beach is easily as sharply observant, tender and morally imaginative as any of the best works of his predecessors in previous generations. And throughout these thirteen stories, whose expansive range covers virtual realities, the Middle East, and the furthest reaches of the solar system, Gefen proves adept at taking readers into very dark places while offering quiet notes of compassion and consolation.
This skill is apparent from the very first story; few writers in their early twenties would be expected to write so imaginatively from the perspective of an eighty-year-old grandfather, but that is precisely what Gefen does in “The Geriatric Platoon,” a poignant story that considers the psychological dynamics of a broken family from the shifting viewpoints of its estranged members, who, despite everything, fiercely love one another. Ultimately their close bonds are not enough to prevent a horrifying development. The tense and hard-hitting “Neptune,” set in one of the country’s most remote outposts, delves even more deeply into the brutally corrosive nature of Israeli militarism, reminding us of the coarsening of young men’s lives and the sacrifices that too many have come to take for granted.
A common theme throughout these stories is the characters running away, in search of themselves or alternative lives, yet surprisingly Gefen never repeats himself. Elsewhere, the narratives display a prickly impatience with a pervasive form of Israeli cool, a fatalistic sensibility that refuses to venture beyond the status quo. One character speaks for the author himself: “I can’t even begin to describe my disdain for people…who can’t complete a sentence without the words ‘bro’ or ‘dude.’ Who are sure they have an explanation for just about everything.” Others shrewdly satirize the limitations of high-tech culture in the lives of alienated characters searching for authenticity, such as “Three Hours from Berlin,” as sharp a critique of what Facebook has done to us as one could hope for.
Perhaps most poignant of all, “Lennon at the Central Bus Station,” the collection’s penultimate story, immerses readers in Israel’s infamous criminal and migrant underworld, as experienced by a lonely and frightened child. Readers drawn to complex portrayals of human desires, repulsions, and attachments will be moved and thrilled by these sparkling stories. Traumatized by war and other losses, Gefen’s profoundly flawed, restless, and yearning characters often struggle to fulfill the conviction reached by a divorced mother in an early story: “It’s not healthy for a person to just resign himself to the role the world has fated him with.” Readers seeking the next important voice in Israeli fiction will applaud Gefen’s Jerusalem Beach for its boldly speculative scenarios, witty language, quiet ironies, and penetrating truths. The English translation of his first novel, Mrs. Lilienblum’s Cloud Factory, will be out next year and, given the exciting evidence of these stories, gracefully translated by Daniella Zamir, many readers will undoubtedly look forward to that work with great anticipation.
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.