Todd McEwen is alarmed by Etgar Keret's world of masculine fury and fantasy in Missing Kissinger
by Todd McEwen The Guardian, Saturday 24 March 2007
Missing Kissinger by Etgar Keret, trans Miriam Schlesinger and Sondra Silverston 211pp, Chatto & Windus, £11.99
These are 46 horror stories from Israel, though they acrobatically shape-shift from the political to the fabulous, and are outwardly comic. They amount to a worldview more frightening than their subjects (and these are scary enough: the Holocaust, sexual dysfunction, sadistic birthday-party magicians). Etgar Keret's locale is that of male confusion, loneliness, blundering, bellowing and, above all, stasis. His narrator is trapped in an angry masculine wistfulness which is awful to behold in its masturbatory disconnection from the world's real possibilities and pleasures.
In a story titled "Freeze!", a man discovers he can shout this word in public and everything stops moving; he can then approach any woman he fancies and take her to his place for sex. Two problems emerge, however. The girls can only do and say what he tells them to (the whole scenario like an unsatisfying wet-dream), and his mother butts in. "I told her there was no reason not to be happy. I tell the girls to come and they come. I don't rape them or anything. And my mother said, 'No, no. God forbid. It's just that there's something very impersonal about it. Unemotional. I don't know how to explain it, but I have this gut feeling that you don't really connect with them.'" Despite leaving her open-mouthed in the street with her shopping for several weeks, things don't go right: "I'd say to the girls, 'Make sounds.' And they'd make all kinds of sounds: Mickey Mouse, jackhammers, political impersonations." He has to find a way around the artificiality of the scene he's created, and when he does, there's still no guarantee he's struck reality. He hits on the idea of ordering these "models, air hostesses and weather girls" to love him for what he truly is. Which is a first-class asshole, of course.
One's tempted to ask Keret, as Seinfeld asked Costanza, what did your parents do to you? There's an insistence on his part that we identify with these morally lost men - boys, really - which is disturbing. His is not a universe entirely lacking in compassion, but the sympathy on offer is only for those mired in the male dooms described. It's a bad place for women, though once in a great while a girl gets her skates on and tells off one of these fellows.
There's an extraordinary pair of stories in a sneaky Aesopian mode, about an isolated town where an idyllic life is led and all the people have animal names. Enter "Mensch", who shames the residents for not having a school for their children or even a name for the village (he insists it be called "Progress"). So begins the pitiful downfall of naming, categorising, education - and since someone must inevitably be done down in such a system, it's the fate of Mr Silky Anteater and his family to become the scapegoats of Mensch, and of Progress.
Whereas Silky was regarded as the life of any party - people thought it a real thrill to dance with him and feel his wonderful paws - Mensch brings charts to the schoolroom which show the anteaters to be a squalid lower form of life. Mr Anteater is outraged: "Do I look to you like someone who walks on all fours? Do I eat ants? Are you serious?" But the wedge has been driven in and the family are ostracised. "So your mother gets down on all fours, eh?" one of the pupils whispers to Silky's son, Ariel.
In the end Ariel has his revenge, though it may be that of someone who has lost his mind - another kind of immobility. But having satisfied himself that Mensch and the entire school have been routed, he suddenly sees his poor father studying an anthill ... Some of these tiny stories are high drama, skilled and emotionally wrenching.
Keret contributes to graphic novels and films, and this is evident in the music-video speed of the "cutting" in his fiction, and in its sense of dislocation. You couldn't say that he is much of a stylist - you get the impression that he throws three or four of these stories off on the bus to work every morning. But I enjoyed these wild, blackly inventive pieces, very much at times - they might have been dreamed up by a mad scientist rather than a writer. Curiously though, I sometimes find myself wishing that one day I will forget I have read them - or perhaps I hope that the reasons they need to exist will eventually disappear. Maybe Keret is like MR James, delighting in setting clever little timebombs a-ticking in your head for the sheer wicked mischief of it. Or, in one of his own extremely apt phrases, maybe he's a liar with wings.
· Todd McEwen's Who Sleeps with Katz is published by Granta