The Short Version: Stories of complicated ordinary lives pepper this collection from Israeli writer & filmmaker Keret. They range from the simplest of love stories (featuring heartbreak and desire) to stranger events surrounding life and death and a few even go so far as to batter at the boundaries of “what makes a story a story” – but all feel uniquely of a singular voice.
The Review: Quotes from The New York Times, Salman Rushdie, and Ira Glass are among the pull quotes on the back of this outwardly modest-seeming collection of strange short stories. But its 180-ish pages are chock filled with stories – some nearly three dozen of them. And while everything these famous and reputable people have said about Keret’s stories could easily be found true in small doses, the overwhelming effect of so many tales in one place is one of – well, of sadness. There’s a darkness here, a sense of melancholy that pervades so many (although not all) of the tales on display, that you end up feeling much like the goldfish on the cover.
The stories fall, broadly, into two camps: the strange and the ordinary. They nearly all cross or toe that line at will but, for all intents and purposes, they can be broadly lumped into one or the other. On the one hand, there are stories like “Big Blue Bus”, which features a father simply trying to give his son what he wants – simple, affecting stuff that feels universal in its attentions. But then, on the other, there’s the title story or “The Story, Victorious” – both of which deal in a metafictional capacity with what it means to write a story. There are tales of people who open zippers in one another’s mouths to reveal whole new people inside, a murderous psychopath finds that his own personal hell is being stuck inside Winnie-the-Pooh, and several tales that deal with (sometimes even quite explicitly) the possibility of parallel universes in which other versions of our lives could be playing out.
They’re all very smart and nearly all of them pack some sort of punch – especially the shorter ones, some clocking in at only a page or two and yet delivering a thoughtful rap about the reader’s head. But that, I have to be honest, gets old after a while. As a reader, I found myself overwhelmed by the indescribable sadness that is the unifying thread between these stories. They aren’t necessarily bleak or even dark, not all of them anyway – but they all have a longing to them, a sense of a character wanting (in some way or another) something more. And very few of these characters get that – or if they do, it’s never as fulfilling as they might’ve hoped.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I can’t shake the feeling that there were simply too many tales on display here. For every Kafkaesque or Nabokovian trick of language, there were two tales that did the same exact trick only with diminishing returns. Same for the tales of family and morality. With the short stories, sometimes less is more – Keret proves that himself with some of his shortest stories being the most powerful. Heed that lesson well, reader – and perhaps you’ll find more uplifting entertainment here than I did.