It is often stated that comedy is tragedy plus time. The 22 inventive stories in Etgar Keret’s prize-winning collection Fly Already exist in that liminal place between tragedy and comedy. The stories usually take place in the mundane reality of everyday life, often featuring despondent protagonists, but are narrated with levity.
This ultra-short-story collection from the venerated Israeli writer features brilliantly cogent, compact chunks of flash fiction. His stories combine the absurdity of a Coen brothers film plot with the surrealism of Franz Kafka’s writing. The result is a zany mix of humour and razor-sharp insights on the human condition with a touch of pragmatism.
The title story is about a father and a son who, while on a stroll, spot a man standing on the ledge of a high rise building. As the father shouts “Don’t do it!” his son — who obviously thinks he has found a superhero — eggs the man on to “fly already!” The situation is then narrated from three markedly different perspectives, spiked with mordant hilarity, which sets the tone for the rest of the book.
A dazzling collection by one of the best short story writers of our times combines the absurdity of a Coen brothers fi lm plot with the surrealism of Franz Kafka’s writing
One of my personal favourites is ‘Todd’, where a writer is asked by his friend Todd to write a story that will help him entice girls. The writer, in turn, tries a “postmodern trick” and the result is a crafty work of metafiction by a savvy writer demonstrating his penchant for turning the tables on the readers.
While short stories as a genre are currently having a moment, this is one of those rare collections where every story, laced with wry humour, is crisp and distinctive but tempting enough to leave room for the possibility of a novel. Although the translation of this collection is shared amongst five notable translators — Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger and Yardenne Greenspan — Keret’s caustic wit shines through uniformly in them all.
In spite of the fact that most of the stories operate within the confines of screwball comedy, Keret occasionally ventures into uncharted waters. His forays into dystopian fiction turn out to be the creepiest and most unsettling. ‘Tabula Rasa’ is a haunting story — maybe the darkest of the lot — where an institution is breeding children as clones of wrongdoers to exact revenge. Our protagonist is the clone of Adolf Hitler; he has been created on the order of a Holocaust survivor to avenge the affliction he has suffered. However, when punishment is to be meted out by killing the clone, the vigilante is perturbed by acquiescence on the part of the clone, since he is supposed to be begging for his life. The clone refuses to do that, remarking, “I’m also supposed to be the man responsible for the extermination of millions and not a clone created in a laboratory who never hurt a living soul.” In ‘Windows’, we are introduced to a starkly realistic web application which allows you to simulate a living experience with a made-up person. The premise bears a striking resemblance to the ‘White Christmas’ episode of the television show Black Mirror, matching its claustrophobic menace to the hilt.
While there are lots of hits in this book, there are a few misses as well. ‘Goodeed’ is one of the weak links; the story is about a group of wealthy women who realise that they can make themselves feel better by giving huge sums of money to homeless people: “They wanted to see him cry or thank Jesus for sending them to him, as if they were saints and not just very rich women.” Despite the fact that the premise has a lot of potential as a blackly humorous satire on the psychology behind the psychosocial constructs of the Good Samaritan and philanthropy, the execution falters because of a lack of subtext, with the narrative appearing a bit too on the nose. ‘Arctic Lizard’, meanwhile, features a futuristic America where Donald Trump is serving his third term and has waged a war against Mexico. This is another plot so grounded in reality that it fails to offer anything new.
Lucky for readers though, the misses are few and far between. When Keret sticks to his idiosyncratic parables, he soars. He has a knack for carving vividly palpable descriptions of human interactions. ‘Car Concentrate’ — a story about a man who keeps his father’s compressed Mustang as a conversation starter in his living room — grows eerily disquieting by the second. Here, a conversation is described as “a tunnel dug under the prison floor that you — patiently and painstakingly — scoop out with a spoon. It has one purpose: to get you away from where you are right now. And when you dig yourself a tunnel, there’s always a target on the other side...” ‘Evolution of a Breakup’ is a masterclass in flash fiction and a heart wrenching tale that traces the disintegration of a marriage back to the origins of life on Earth.
Keret is best when his flights of fancy are, by turn, existential yet madcap. He is too interesting and restless a writer to confine himself to just the political or the mundane. Hailed as one of the best short story writers of our times, in this collection Keret brazenly experiments with pushing the envelope within this form.
A highlight of this collection is ‘The Birthday of a Failed Revolutionary’ where a bored, lonely billionaire comes up with the “entrepreneurial” idea of buying other people’s birthdays and “everything that comes along with it: presents, greetings, parties, etc.” It is a bittersweet tale where Keret nimbly straddles the line between the farcical and the heart-touching, while connoting the pursuit of happiness in our materialistic world.
The penultimate story, ‘Pineapple Crush’, is also perhaps the longest and most sobering. It is about a day-care worker who forges an unexpected bond with a middle-aged woman on his way to work one day, where they proceed to smoke a joint together daily. It is a subtle lament about the human need for connection, done in an understated, almost gingerly fashion.
The vivacity of ideas, spiked with Keret’s trademark brand of droll black humour, is what makes this book memorable and a thoroughly enjoyable read. In an interview with NPR, Keret expounded on why he prefers writing fiction to non-fiction: “When you write fiction, you kind of go out on an adventure. You have something in your mind, you don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s great fun.” Fly Already, then, epitomises what he sets out to achieve with his fiction since reading it is akin to boarding a wild, adrenaline-pumping ride where you never know what will meet you at the next turn.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications
By Etgar Keret
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 19th, 2020