For many American readers, Etgar Keret’s 2006 collection The Nimrod Flipout was the book that first introduced them to this excellent Israeli writer. With his short, fable-like stories combining a fantastical whimsy with the political and social realities of the Middle East, Keret’s stories felt like they burst onto the scene from nowhere, while in reality it was his second American book taken from the five collections already published in Israel. Like its predecessors, The Girl on the Fridge contains a wealth of Keret’s short stories, including some that will truly amaze the reader at how much power he can pack into a two- or three-page story, or, even more impressively, into a one-paragraph story, like the opener “Asthma Attack,” quoted here in its entirety:
When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones – those cost you, too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asthmatic says “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could be ambulance.
Like all of his best stories, “Asthma Attack” shows off Keret’s ability to make every word count and to employ simple phrases to often grand effect. The story also reads like a manifesto when placed at the beginning of a collection of stories, an argument for the concise brevity of the work contained within The Girl on the Fridge. Unfortunately, readers already familiar with Keret through The Nimrod Flipout and The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God will likely be disappointed by the bulk of this collection, culled as it is from the last remaining stories of his early Hebrew collections, which have already been raided for the two volumes already available in English. Many of these stories display Keret at a seemingly earlier stage, one where he is more clever than profound, more cynical than satirical. His powers as a writer have grown immensely since the bulk of these stories were written, and so, despite their many merits, they are simply not as strong as the stories already familiar to his American readers.
Comparisons aside, there are still a number of strong stories collected here, and the best will be welcome additions to the collections of readers who have already devoured Keret’s earlier books. Highlights include “Hat Trick,” about a magician who reaches into his hat at a children’s party to pull out his rabbit Kazam only to come up with just the head, and the relationship story “Crazy Glue,” narrated by a man whose girlfriend glues herself to the ceiling of their apartment as a way to solve their problems. Overall, there are more successes than failures, and even the duds will still offer the occasional laugh or witty insight. The core of what makes Keret a great writer is always there, even when the packaging isn’t quite up to snuff.
Now that his back catalog has been more or less exhausted, readers can look forward to whatever comes next from Keret. Six years have passed since his last Hebrew collection, Anihu, was published, and we can only hope that a new volume is coming soon, followed in short order by an English translation. For fans ready for the next phase of Keret’s career, that truer sequel to his early works can’t come soon enough.