Author Etgar Keret Discusses His New Book Of Short Stories, 'Fly Already'
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Israeli writer Etgar Keret's short stories, there are children who age at 10 times the normal speed, parents who turn into rabbits, people who don't know whether they are real.
ETGAR KERET: I compare writing stories to dreaming. I think many times, you know, a dream - like, you know - I don't know - you go to a swimming pool, and then when you go home, you fold the swimming pool and put it in your pocket and head back.
KERET: And in the dream, it kind of - it makes perfect sense...
KERET: ...Because you wouldn't leave your swimming pool behind, you know? People might come and pee in it.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's why you fold it up and put it in your pocket.
KERET: Yeah, it's the safest way in dreams.
SHAPIRO: Etgar Keret's new collection of stories is called "Fly Already." He told me that, for him, the preposterous is no less believable than our current reality.
KERET: I think its starting point is really this kind of stage in my life where I feel as if I can make less sense of the world I live in not because - I'm saying, you know, it's, like, this kind of feeling as if I'm on this rocket or spaceship leaving Earth. And I look at the people down there and, you know, they seem smaller and smaller. And the things that they're doing, you know - I can make less and less sense of it. And I think that, you know, it's kind of an elderly phenomenon that I'm experiencing at the age of 50...
KERET: ...But this is exactly how I feel because, like, you know, I look at my prime minister or at your president, and I say, oh, no, no, no, he didn't say that. No, no, no. I must have imagined it. No, he couldn't have said that. And they do, you know? So this really kind of elderly guy feeling of looking at the world that stops making sense was the engine of many of those stories. Like, trying to find my route back to have a grip on these kind of realities - it seems to become more and more slippery.
SHAPIRO: And there are absurd moments in these stories that make so much sense, like a wealthy man who feels lonely who decides to buy up everybody's birthdays so that he'll be celebrated every day. On one level, it's completely insane. And on another level, well, sure. If you want to be celebrated every day and you'll have all the money in the world, buy everybody's birthdays.
KERET: Yeah, well, I feel that we live in an age where we have people who are wealthier than there were ever wealthy people in history. You know, with this kind of globalization, the rich people are insanely rich. And at the same time, you know, they can't figure out new ways to make the best out of their money. So this idea of kind of getting something that is emotional, like, you know, having your mom or another mom call you in the morning and sing "Happy Birthday" to you or having people still buy and give you a little present or write a card to you is something that, maybe if you have enough money, maybe you can buy that, too.
SHAPIRO: We're talking about globalization and world leaders and income inequality, and your stories really don't hit that over the head. Have you ever tried writing more explicitly and directly about those things and just found that it works better to kind of come at it from the angle that you do instead?
KERET: I used to write many op-eds. I write very few now. And the feeling I have is that the moment that you express an opinion about something in this world, then it becomes more and more tribal. Like, you say, OK, this is what I believe in. This guy is saying the opposite thing. You know, I hate him. He's a [expletive].
KERET: Let's look where we got it wrong. And I think that the moment that you write things that are more metaphorical and not statement about reality itself - I think that people let some of their defenses down. And maybe if I'm lucky, then they get enough disoriented that they can rethink something, you know? And it's...
KERET: And I didn't write any of those stories trying to convince people to do something - just to reflect on their life.
SHAPIRO: This reminds me of a story that's about angels. This story is set in a heaven where God is dead. And one of the angels misses human experience, and he says the happiness of heaven is a limp kind of happiness, like the elastic on underpants that have been washed too many times. Will you read the passage where this character describes what he misses from the earth?
KERET: (Reading) Yes. You know that feeling of wanting something so much that your whole body aches and you know that your chances of getting it are really, really small? And you stand in your living room in your boxers, covered in sweat, and try to imagine that moment when your lips will meet the lips of the girl you've always wanted or your son saying, you're the best dad in the world, or the hospital calling to tell you the biopsy was negative. Did you ever want something that badly, Raphael?
SHAPIRO: Do you remember how you were feeling when you wrote that?
KERET: Yes. I think, you know, that my idea of being an angel in the story was that because you have everything, because you have no vices, because there is nothing to be afraid of, you know, you don't yearn for anything. You don't expect anything. You are in this kind of, I guess, ever-going bliss. And this idea of giving up on yearning or hopefulness was something that kind of scared me.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, it suggests that kind of the mixture of joy and pain is what really makes it worthwhile, that just pure joy is kind of meh.
KERET: You know, we always want things to get better.
SHAPIRO: I mean, the specific example of the doctor calling to say the biopsy was negative is so lovely because wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world free of cancer? But even more wonderful is the idea of fear being wiped away with a phone call.
KERET: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, we want to get away with something. And for that, there has to be a risk.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. One of the stories in this collection has a title that makes (laughter) me laugh. It's called "The Next-To-Last Time I Was Shot Out Of A Cannon." And it's a really beautiful story. But the title, just from the very beginning, contextualizes everything that you read after that in a way that a different title might not.
KERET: For me, writing a story is a little bit like being shot out of a cannon...
KERET: ...Because when I sit down and write, it's always very scary. Like, it's not as if I think I'm going to break my bones, but I think that there would be some things there on the page that I cannot predict. And I don't know if this something will say something bad about me or about my feelings toward people close to me. But at the same time, it gives you the ability to be an insider or outsider to your own life, to have some kind of a different perspective on them.
And in the story, this guy that they shoot out of a cannon in a circus - and the moment that they're shooting out of this cannon, you know, he can see his entire life - his child, his ex-wife, the cat that he had lost from a vantage point. And he can see them for what they are and not as part of him, trying to lie his way out or trying to defend or attack.
And I think that this what happens in art because in art, the moment that you write a story, you don't have any stakes. You're not heading anywhere. You can just be. And the moments that you can just be, you can see things for what they are. And that's why, when they shoot you out of a cannon, you want to be shot out of it again.
SHAPIRO: But then you land.
KERET: But then you land. You know, if you're lucky, you land in the Mediterranean Sea.
KERET: And if not, it could be a harder fall.
SHAPIRO: Etgar Keret, thank you so much for talking with us.
KERET: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: His new collection of short stories is called "Fly Already."
(SOUNDBITE OF AKIRA KOSEMURA'S "DNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.