The first story in The Girl on the Fridge, Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s new collection, doubles as an opening announcement: The briefest of the book’s 46 exceptionally short pieces, “Asthma Attack” suggests the value that words accrue when one is unable to breathe. “A word’s a lot,” he argues, especially when that word is “ambulance.” Asthma sufferers learn to choose them well; “Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind,” Keret writes, “the way you throw out garbage.” By his own metric, Keret (whose last collection was The Nimrod Flipout) is the raging asthmatic of short-fiction writers, his words chosen and few, his stories issued with the urgency of an inhaler’s blast.
It may seem perverse that a writer so devoted to the well-selected word should traffic in terms like nimrod, flipout, and—in this collection—homo, dipshit, and retard. But the middle-school slurs and wistful deadpan of Keret’s language, and the absurdist tendencies of his aesthetic, belie an ability to wallop the reader with the earthbound and the awful. Keret’s characters live inside their metaphors—a woman superglues herself to the ceiling after arguing with her straying boyfriend over the product’s bonding power; a magician pulls dead babies from his hat. Most of the characters are confronted with the moment of dread and disillusion that accompanies the passage between dream and waking life, childhood and adulthood. Some of the stories deal directly with dreams, others with dream-like memory. In “Summer of ’76,” the narrator recalls the fleeting triumph of having life by the tail, of knowing the exact dimensions of the world and one’s place within them: “Terrible things could happen around me, but they never even touched me.”
Though hardly polemical, the stories are populated by soldiers, lovers, Arabs, and Jews, and are permeated by violence and loss. Greeting the offhand, personal havoc they’re subjected to with grim familiarity, Keret’s characters suggest the broader Israeli experience in brief, sidelong strokes.
In any collection of this many stories, there will be a spectrum of success, and the least engaging entries here have an unfinished quality, with the author reaching too neatly for a presto-profundo flourish. But Keret’s best conjure not only a country, but a world, and in just a few breaths.