The Girl on the Fridge

Etgar Keret; Miri­am Shlesinger and Son­dra Sil­ver­ston, trans.

By – November 15, 2011

A child nur­tured by a major appli­ance isn’t usu­al­ly the sub­ject of great fic­tion, but as the sto­ries in Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s col­lec­tion The Girl on the Fridge can attest to, this mas­ter­ful writer can make even the most bizarre of sit­u­a­tions deeply emo­tion­al­ly res­o­nant. Short, strange, and bru­tal­ly fun­ny, Keret’s sto­ries have caused him to be hailed as a genius” by The New York Times and placed him as a star on the stage of world literature.

On a recent tour to the States to pro­mote his book, Keret had just arrived in Boston with­out his lug­gage or pass­port, hav­ing lost both at the air­port. It’s like a Woody Allen film,” he observed, But not as fun­ny.” The Girl on the Fridge is Keret’s fourth sto­ry col­lec­tion to be pub­lished in Eng­lish— the oth­ers include The Nim­rod Flipout (FSG, 2006), The Bus Dri­ver Who Want­ed to be God (Toby Press, 2004) and Miss­ing Kissinger (Chat­to & Win­dus, 2007). Despite its Eng­lish pub­li­ca­tion sequence, The Girl on the Fridge col­lects Keret’s sto­ries from his first two books in Hebrew. Essen­tial­ly his juve­nil­ia, the bril­liance of Keret’s writ­ing is appar­ent even at 22 (he’s now 41) when he began to pub­lish fresh out of the Israeli army. 

It’s like look­ing at a pho­to album from when you were still young and didn’t have a pot bel­ly yet,” said Keret about the sto­ries col­lect­ed for this book. It’s fun­ny because I know I wouldn’t be able to write them now, and some­times I kind of miss that pas­sion and anger. There’s some­thing more rec­on­ciled in my writ­ing now. I miss that crazy ener­gy even though I real­ize how messed up I was.” 

He might have been young, but Keret’s abil­i­ty to apply a scalpel of obser­va­tion and wit to the under­bel­ly of con­tem­po­rary Israel and reveal its messy innards and human expe­ri­ences is remark­able. His Israel is less the myth­ic land of milk, hon­ey, and pio­neers, and more about the com­pli­cat­ed every­day life in a coun­try belea­guered by the con­stant under­cur­rent of violence. 

Keret is the son of a Holo­caust sur­vivor, grew up large­ly sec­u­lar, and has a sis­ter who’s deeply reli­gious (now in her mid 40’s, she has 11 chil­dren and two grand­chil­dren. When I go over there they all scream my name at the same time.”). He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, film­mak­er and actress Shi­ra Gef­fen, and their two-year old son, Lev. Keret and Gef­fen have col­lab­o­rat­ed on films, includ­ing the recent­ly released Jel­ly­fish, which won a Cam­era d’Or at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val (his work was also the basis for the recent film Wrist­cut­ters: A Love Sto­ry). On top of all of this, he’s often her­ald­ed as the heir to Amos Oz’s sta­tus as a titan of Israeli lit­er­a­ture and voice of his generation. 

The com­par­isons to Oz flat­ter Keret, but he takes them in stride. Once, when the two spoke togeth­er, Oz explained that he writes fic­tion and essays with two dif­fer­ent pens— for fic­tion it’s a pen of con­fu­sion, and for essays it’s a pen of clar­i­ty. I write both on my com­put­er,” Keret deadpanned. 

Along with the acco­lades come the inevitable ques­tions of the polit­i­cal con­tent of his writ­ing as an Israeli artist. Although his work rarely deals with pol­i­tics direct­ly, he is still sub­ject to the question. 

When I showed Jel­ly­fish two peo­ple came up and start­ed shout­ing at me. They said I am pro-Pales­tin­ian and that I was part of a con­spir­a­cy to show that Israel has bad hotel rooms.” As for the con­stant ques­tions, Keret said: It’s not fun­ny, it’s not sad, it’s just strange. Is the dog a Pales­tin­ian, or the father an Israeli? Many peo­ple think being polit­i­cal is being prag­mat­ic. The pol­i­tics I exer­cise do not come from that posi­tion. Look around and tell me what you feel about it. Look into your­self. I think telling peo­ple what the right thing to do is too obvi­ous and a cliché. I don’t want to endorse ideas the way Michael Jor­dan endors­es shoes. I’m not sure I know bet­ter than every­body else. Art is a stage where you pro­mote ambiguity.” 

Although he trav­els wide­ly to pro­mote his work, Keret’s heart remains in Tel Aviv, and par­tic­u­lar­ly with Lev. Asked if his son has inher­it­ed his parent’s cre­ative tal­ents, Keret replied He real­ly loves sto­ries, and likes telling sto­ries, but they’re very bor­ing. They’re very long and are usu­al­ly about Lev leav­ing the house and eat­ing ice cream. You would think it was Crime and Pun­ish­ment [because] they’re so long and he’s so excit­ed when he tells them.” 

If a lit­er­ary life isn’t in the cards for Lev, per­haps one in film is. He loves watch­ing films, since he was 14 months he would watch movies. We took him once to see The Red Bal­loon in Tel Aviv and when it was over he start­ed cry­ing, again, and again. The ush­er was real­ly nice, and told him we’re sor­ry, but we just show it once. It was the wrong answer. Lev start­ed to hit the ush­er. My wife and I call him the lit­tle Mussolini.” 

Ruth Andrew Ellen­son is a win­ner of a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for The Mod­ern Jew­ish Girls’ Guide to Guilt (Pen­guin Ran­dom House), and a jour­nal­ist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Ange­les Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post

Discussion Questions

1. While their con­tent varies immense­ly, Keret’s sto­ries are unit­ed by the fact that they are all very, very short. Why does Keret work in this form? What are the artis­tic pros and cons of such short, explo­sive, tales?
2. Keret’s sto­ries veer unpre­dictably between the humor­ous and the unset­tling. What is the effect of this jux­ta­po­si­tion? What effects do those two emo­tions have on each oth­er, and what is the net emo­tion­al effect?
3. In Israel, Keret is Israel’s best-sell­ing author under forty, and his fan base is pre­dom­i­nant­ly peo­ple in their 20s and 30s. What about Keret’s work speaks to a young audi­ence? How gen­er­a­tional is Keret’s writing?

4. Keret’s pro­tag­o­nists are char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly unheroic. What are some exam­ples of anti-heroes in the sto­ries in this col­lec­tion and what do we gain from read­ing about them?