I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times’s “Lost Word” column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it “a literary event of the first magnitude… by Russia’s greatest living prose writer.”The book reprints the author’s 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the “no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades,” and insisting that his work “be published without delay.” Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society’s ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He’s a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: “…although he’d never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he’s always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own.” He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov’s nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in “personnel records administration… Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was… The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues.” This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov’s exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital’s radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: “…the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else… At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna’s thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn’t that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work.”Kostoglotov’s life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. “For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she’d move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn’t make the slightest mistake.”And we meet the ward’s other patients – Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one’s inner reality – loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still – about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one’s mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. “Note: A number of small nationalities – Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others – were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called ‘exiled settlers.’ ‘Administrative exiles,’ like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country.”This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?” As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn’s story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.
When I encounter readers who’ve read all of David Sedaris’ books and are pining for more, I often point them to Fraud by David Rakoff. I based this recommendation on his frequent and frequently amusing appearances on This American Life, and a general idea that he and Sedaris share a certain world view for whatever reason. Well, now I’ve read the book, and I think it’s fair to say that Rakoff is a reasonable substitute for Sedaris, should no Sedaris be available. But they are not the same writer. Rakoff frequently pens a sort of meta-article in which he talks about the particulars and relative merits of his assignment as he embarks on that assignment. I have no idea if the essays that appear in Fraud were published in the same form in magazines or if for every article he crafted a meta-article with which to entertain himself (and us). Either way, the reader feels invited in for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a disaffected, overly-qualified, under-ambitious journalist as he takes on his fluffy assignments. In this way he differs from Sedaris, who writes almost exclusively about himself, with no artifice in between him and the reader. The fluffier the assignment, the more devil-may-care Rakoff becomes. He takes jabs at Steven Segal’s new age retreat, a New Englander who walks up the same “mountain” every day, and, most often, himself. At times the persona wears thin, too much cynicism and self-awareness, as when he writes about portraying Sigmund Freud in the window of Barney’s department store. But he redeems the collection with the final two essays in which he lets the reader see his more human side. In “Tokyo Story,” he returns to the city fifteen years after being forced to leave and start over his life after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Returning, he finds no haunting demons, but instead paints a funny and endearing portrait of a unique city.I have been so relieved to find that the city in and of itself is not enough to unlock the sadness of my younger self. To the contrary, I have been unable to wipe the smile from my face since I arrived, giddy with a sense of survival. It’s not even clear to me that that old misery is still housed in my body anymore. I have been avoiding a monster behind a door for thirteen years, only to find that it had melted away long ago, nothing more than a spun-sugar bogeyman. It’s definitely not the first time in my adulthood I have realized this, but it never fails to cheer me to have it proven yet again that almost any age is better than twenty-two. The final essay, “I Used to Bank Here, but That Was Long, Long Ago” is about Rakoff’s bout with Hodgkin’s. Here he is at is best, and his typically casual vulgarity is more important to the plot, which revolves around a long lost sperm sample from his cancer days. Ultimately, he revisits his illness, long tucked away after he beat it, and we realize that the cynical Rakoff isn’t so cynical when he’s willing to be brave.
“A man is sitting in the room, all by himself. He’s lonely. He’s a writer. He wants to write a story. It’s been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it… The man decides to write a story about the situation. Not the political situation and not the social situation either. He decides to write a story about the human situation, the human condition. The human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now.”
This candid, semi-autobiographical admission, taken from the title tale of Etgar Keret’s stunning new collection of short stories, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, encapsulates the tenor of much of the best of Keret’s short fiction: The striving to chronicle the human situation, to get beyond the partisan politics, anger, and fear of the contemporary Middle East even while struggling (knowingly struggling) within those constraints.
In a 2006 interview with The Believer, when he was asked a particularly loaded question, Keret virtually said as much:
“Linda Grant,” the interviewer asked, or, perhaps, opined, “who had been living in Israel for four months…painted a very different picture of Israel from the one we get on CNN. She wrote of claustrophobia, defeat and powerlessness, of complete disillusion with the Zionist dream… When I went back to read your stories, I felt something similar.”
Keret, instead of calling out Grant on her self-righteous naïveté (she had been in Israel for four whole months), or her simplistic understanding of what it is like to truly live in and be a conscientious citizen of Israel, responded by pointing to the essential smallness of Grant’s argument:
I think that any authentic feeling one has of life should be a feeling of defeat. It’s a losing game. You’re going to die. Civilization is going to end. Our society is in decline, and we should feel OK about it because Roman society was in decline and before it the Assyrian one was, and they disappeared off this earth and we will disappear too… Many of the problems in Israel are not unique regional problems. They’re widespread human problems that in Israel are kind of extreme.
This is what makes Keret’s stories so uniquely powerful, so powerfully unique. The extreme right-nowness of the human condition in his stories is exacerbated and amplified by the Israeli backdrop, always present even if not always explicitly acknowledged. Far from losing himself in the terrible uniqueness of the Israeli situation, he uses that situation to explore and enlighten our essential human character.
Keret, who is in his forties, is probably the preeminent Israeli writer of his generation, a group too young to see the birth and the early years of the state with their own eyes, old enough to witness the dissolution of much their elders had come to believe in. He is certainly not your average Israeli fiction writer. He made his name by writing very short, often proto-fantastical stories with a whimsical yet often tragic tone. These can be three or four page stories that leave you heartbroken, stunned, or reaching for the box of tissues. It is a style he may or may not have created, but one that he has certainly perfected.
Keret’s quirky fictions quickly attracted a large audience in his native Israel. His stories generally stay away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. His characters – the child who falls in love with his piggy bank and sets it free, so as not to have to break it and retrieve his money; the man who buys a how-to-succeed-in-business book and receives, instead, a book teaching him to swim like a dolphin; the man who pushes a self-declared winged angel off a building to see if it can fly, only to watch him (the angel) rapidly fall to his death – while both intensely local and universal, seem somehow removed from what Israelis call hamatzav, the ever-present, all-encompassing situation. The world of the West Bank and Gaza, of Lebanon and Iran, not to mention the world of secular-religious in-fighting, could be a million miles away.
Most of Keret’s stories take place in or around Tel Aviv, on the sliver of land closest to the Mediterranean that feels most “normal,” most untouched (usually) by the constant war and threat of terrorism – of the man next to you exploding and killing you in the process – that is omnipresent in some other areas of the culture. Keret’s soldiers, if they exist at all, are more likely to be what Israelis semi-derisively call jobnikkim, which has no literal English translation but most closely approximates to gophers, men and women who see no real action, who spend the bulk of their military service in military office buildings, often in the heart of the country, staffing canteens or fixing computers.
Keret himself spent a good chunk of his three years of compulsory military service in a basement, fixing computers that for the most part didn’t break, biding time until his military service was over. It was there, as Keret tells it, in the basement where he spent his military service with his best friend (a computer programmer who had gotten him the cushy, mindless job), that that friend, who suffered from depression, from an oversensitivity to the pointlessness of life, killed himself. Keret was in the next room. It was there, two weeks later, that Keret wrote his first story. “Pipes” is a tale of a man who feels he isn’t fit for this world. He builds a pipe that leads him to a sort of heaven, populated not by people who were good (“God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that”), but by others who feel they were not fit to live on earth.
Pipelines, the book containing Keret’s first story, was published in Israel in 1992. Three more books of short stories followed over the next ten years. A chronically vibrant outpouring (perhaps the better word is explosion) of work, almost a hundred and fifty stories in all, most which have been published in English in the collections The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, The Nimrod Flipout, Missing Kissinger, and The Girl on the Fridge.
These stories, like “Pipes,” are almost all very short, sometimes two or three pages, sometimes one, sometimes only a paragraph. The issues they deal with sometimes skirt Jewish history, Jewish memory, the Holocaust, hamatzav, but they never exactly touch it. “Siren,” perhaps Keret’s most famous story within his native Israel (it is required reading in Israeli high schools), available in English in both The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Four Stories, is a good representative example. In “Siren,” the narrator, a high school senior, tattles on a more popular, successful, virile classmate for stealing the bicycle of the school’s janitor, an old Holocaust survivor. The popular boy finds out, and corners the narrator behind the school:
I wanted to get away from there, to run, raise my hands to protect my face, but fear paralyzed me. Then suddenly, out of nowhere came the sound of the siren. I’d completely forgotten that it was Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers.
The narrator’s nemesis, along with the rest of the Jews in the country, stand at attention while the siren wails. Not the narrator, though:
I walked to the hole in the fence and stepped through slowly and quietly… I went on walking home through the streets with all the frozen people looking like wax dummies, the sound of the siren surrounding me with an invisible shield.
The siren – the official, legitimate, state-mandated manners of mourning, of remembrance – is what Keret continually questions in his stories, what he continually forces his readers to rethink. The boy who steals from a Holocaust survivor also obediently, without thinking, without being watched or told, stands at attention for the memory of the fallen soldiers of his country – a country that was created in part to ensure their would never be a second Holocaust. The story of what Israel is, what it could be, and what it should be is told more fluently in this five-page story of two high school kids than in most other hundred-odd paged novels or works of sociology.
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is Keret’s latest collection of short stories. Published in Israel in 2010, and released in English this year, the collection shows a real maturation, while at the same time evoking a pleasant and perhaps necessary return to form.
And it is a return, in that between 2002 and 2010 Keret did not publish a single stand-alone collection of short stories. Not that he wasn’t busy. He wrote comic and children’s books and co-authored a collection with a Palestinian author, Samir El-Youssef. He also wrote and directed or co-directed a number of films, including the beautiful and whimsical $9.99, based on a number of his early stories. But for Keret, who published over a hundred stories in his first decade on the literary scene, a second decade without a single stand-alone collection seemed (was, in fact) too long.
What happened? Keret claims that life happened. He married, had a child, settled into a liberal upper-middle-class existence (as much of a upper-middle-class existence as a hyper-famous author can settle into in a country where authors are treated more like movie stars than twentieth century relics). This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Keret’s growing American fan base, as it gave his publisher and translators (particularly the fabulous Miriam Shlesinger, who has translated the bulk of his work into English) the time and opportunity to catch up and translate many of the stories from Keret’s earlier collections. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, his first book of stories to be released in America, was published in 2001. Five books of translated stories rapidly followed, culminating in Suddenly.
In any case, Keret was busy.
And it shows. While the protagonists of his earlier stories were likely to be about children or teenagers (like the protagonist in “Pipes”), or young lovers who would as soon contemplate jumping off a roof as settling down and having kids, the stories in Suddenly largely revolve around aging couples, parents with children, miserable husbands and wives (or, in some cases, ex-husbands and wives), men obsessed not with scoring attractive mates for a night but with the stock market, particularly with the rise and fall of the Israeli stocks on NASDAQ. Keret has grown up.
I almost cannot believe I am making this reference – one that would be quite unthinkable from a reading of any of Keret’s earlier, more juvenile-centric works, but reading these stories, I was repeatedly reminded of the middle-class malaise of John Updike. Not that any of these tales would feel at home in the world of Updike’s Rabbit. To be sure, many of the characters in these stories feel existential angst at the monotony or the depressions of monogamy and the nine-to-five workday. But, even when they don’t live in a fantastical world – a meta-Tel-Aviv where men just as easily turn into dolphins as confront their cheating spouses – the characters use their own imaginative powers (powers instilled in them by their imaginative creator) to help them understand and work through the messes they’ve got themselves in.
“Creative Writing,” possibly the finest story in this collection, is a prime example. The story begins with a character writing a story:
The first story Maya wrote was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing. In that world, every person could, at any given moment, turn into two beings, each one half his/her age… The heroine of Maya’s story was splitless. She had reached the age of eighty and, despite constant social pressure, insisted on not splitting. At the end of the story, she died.
Only later does the reader discover that Maya wrote this story for a creative writing class she had enrolled in in response to losing her first child in a miscarriage. Throughout the story, Maya communicates her true feelings, her passions and misunderstandings that cannot somehow be conveyed in oral language, through these fantastic stories. The intended recipient, perhaps, is Maya’s busy, distant businessman husband. At the story’s end, the husband composes a story of his own:
The story he wrote was about a fish that was swimming happily along in the sea when a wicked witch turned it into a man… The fish kept doing better and better, until one day, when he was really old, he looked out the window of one of the dozens of huge shoreline buildings he’d purchased in a smart real-estate deal, and saw the sea. And suddenly he remembered that he was a fish. A very rich fish who controlled many subsidiary companies that were traded on stock markets around the world, but still a fish. A fish who, for years, had not tasted the salt of the sea.
Keret’s characters have the fantastic ability to retreat from their own world to create their own meta-stories in order to try to make sense of, or at the very least deal with, their often senseless surroundings. It is a trait they share with Keret himself. The strong, rapid prose and overarching themes of misplacement in “Creative Writing” echo the best stories of Keret’s earlier collections. His focus on the discomfort and trauma of married life, however, is both new and welcome.
As surprising as it is to witness Keret’s turn toward the life of the (externally) staid middle-class family, the move from viewing the world from the eyes of the deluded child to seeing it from the perspective of the just as deluded adult, this subtle shift in focus is not what strikes me most about these stories. What surprised (and, indeed, frightened) me most about these new stories, is how directly a number of them deal with hamatzav.
Take, for example, that truly fantastic title story, which serves both as an acknowledgment of how long Keret has been gone (for Israelis, if not for us) and as a hint at his new narrative persona. The story begins in medias res:
“Tell me a story,“ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands. The situation, I must say, is anything but pleasant. I’m someone who writes stories, not someone who tells them. And even that isn’t something I do on demand. The last time anyone asked me to tell him a story, it was my son…But the situation [in Hebrew: hamatzav] is fundamentally different. Because my son doesn’t have a beard, or a pistol. Because my son asked for the story nicely, and this man is simply trying to rob me of it.
I try to explain to the bearded man that if he puts his pistol away it will only work in his favor, in our favor. It’s hard to think up a story with the barrel of a loaded pistol pointed at your head. But the guy insists. ”In this country,“ he explains, “if you want something, you have to use force.”
The striking power of these sentences is nothing but Keret at his best. Every word, every phrase, is packed with meaning. One could easily write a lengthy essay about the first paragraph alone. Suffice it to say that the phrase hamatzav here is used intentionally, that West Bank settlers stereotypically have beards, and that there are some obvious larger overtones to this story (also, that some people were very upset about the length between this collection of stories and Keret’s last work).
As the story progresses, more people come to hijack the narrator, to force him to tell a story. “I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman,” he says. Those two writers (who happen to both be favorites of mine, though for very different reasons) would never have this happen in their stories, either.
To my mind, this is Keret’s most explicit fictional acknowledgment of his country’s unique narrative to date. Still, it ends with both hope and desperation, at the beginning of a new story. The narrator wants to integrate the terrorists into a story, to give the story the flavor of the human condition. They resist. Finally, one of them accedes to his demand:
“You want a knock on the door?” the terrorist says. “Okay, have your knock on the door. Just so long as it brings us a story.”
The terrorists, in their many forms, remain inside, haunting Keret’s narrator, haunting Keret. They are part of the land, part of what it means to live and write in Israel. They are part of what makes Keret a superb writer. There is a knock at the door. Keret invites them in.
If these stories are fuller, more mature, than what came before, they also, I think, lose something in the explicit fictional acknowledgment of the external world. There was something nice, something calming, about picking up The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and knowing that you would not encounter a terrorist. Even when the suicide bomb is in the background, lurking in the subtext of the story, the bomber himself is never front and center. In some of these stories – one of which involves a man who narrowly misses being killed by the suicide bomber who explodes feet away from him, killing the waitress who just served him – Keret has seemed to let the world of his daily life inch a bit closer to the surface in the pages of his fictions. It is a step, to be sure, that is both traumatizing and powerful, and Keret, being Keret, does explicit terror well in the instances he chooses to do so. I wonder, though, whether explicating the problems he so adeptly sidestepped, and thereby magnified, is a step in the right direction.
Still, cumulatively these stories only make up a small percentage of this new collection. When they do appear, they for the most part succeed as powerful and meaningful fiction. In any case, the Keret that keeps things a bit below the surface, always ready to but never entirely showing themselves, is still present in the bulk of these fictions.
Not all of Keret’s stories succeed. Suddenly, like most of the books that came before it, contains a few duds. Some, like “The Story, Victorious,” about the best story ever written (hint: it’s the one you’re reading), are too precious for their own good. But in the best of the stories in his new collection, the mature Keret hits a stride that matches or exceeds the best of his previous work. “Guava,” a three page story, starts, like “Suddenly,” in the midst of the action:
“There was no sound from the engines of the plane. There were no sounds at all. Except perhaps the soft crying of the flight attendants a few rows behind him.” Shkedi, the protagonist, is on a crashing plane. He is about to die. “‘Just don’t crash,’ Shkedi said. ‘Just don’t crash.’”
But wait. This is an Etgar Keret story.
“Forty seconds before Shkedi expired, an angel appeared, all dressed in white, and told him he’d been awarded a last wish.”
Shkedi wishes for peace on earth. The angel grants his wish. Meanwhile, Shkedi dies, and is reincarnated into a guava.
People beat their swords into plowshares and nuclear reactors soon began to be used for peaceful purposes. But none of this was of any comfort to the guava. Because the tree was tall and the ground seemed distant and painful. Just don’t crash, the guava shuddered wordlessly, just don’t crash.
This is the human condition. This is living in our flawed, imperfect, beautiful world. Keret gets it. And he conveys it in stories with an inventiveness and power unmatched in Israel, or anywhere else for that matter.
A minor lapse in comprehension caused me to believe, for about the first half of this collection, that I was reading a book called Imitations. I liked that title (though the actual one, Intimations, is more than adequate), because it struck me as slyly self-aware, particularly when applied to an author’s first story collection. (Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was published last year to great acclaim.) Writers learn to write stories by imitating their influences, and Kleeman’s collection is more mindful than most when it comes to sampling the various traditions of American short fiction.
The book is divided into three sections (which promotional material describes as “birth, living, and death,” though that is an oversimplification). The first offers a set of surreal stories that feature characters floundering under the expectations of others. In “Fairy Tale,” the narrator might be describing a dream: she is at a dinner with her parents and a man who claims to be her fiancé, though she does not recognize him and feels no attraction to him. As the story proceeds, more and more men show up at the table, each claiming to be a boyfriend or lover or paramour, and the pressure for the narrator to choose one leads to increasingly extreme scenarios. In “The Dancing-Master,” the eponymous instructor is goaded by the village philosopher into teaching a feral boy to dance like a proper gentleman: “Portesquieu would claim that this is impossible, that a body cultivated in the wild assumes the essence of wildness, turns swampy and will not admit of the growth of more refined habits. But with my labor, I prove him wrong: my wild child dances the minuet on command, as well as several other current dances.” The dancing-master achieves his pedagogical aims through use of a rod. When left to his own devices, the poor wild boy much prefers to chew on whatever objects are available. In their cold, fantastic minimalism, these first stories recall the work of Aimee Bender or Robert Coover (whose lengthy blurb, given its own page at the beginning of the book, functions like an oddly self-referential epigraph).
Section two begins with a suite of stories following the trials of a woman named Karen. “I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am the One For You” finds her attempting to write a profile of a humane dairy farmer shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend. She meets a German man in a cafe and the two begin an awkward flirtation. “Choking Victim” flashes forward half a decade, when Karen is now married to an architect and the mother of an infant daughter. She attempts to acclimate to life in a new city, but finds she is forever at odds with her surroundings. “Jellyfish” skips back to the day the architect, Dan, proposed to her, while on vacation at a resort in a developing country where the seas are plagued by blooms of jellyfish that unnerve the swimmers. These stories are naturalistic, if quirky: more Rivka Galchen than Bender. Kleeman proves herself an skilled conjurer of familiar life. In “Choking Victim,” Karen observes the hacking cough of an unseen neighbor: “The coughing continued, louder and more urgent. It grew and solidified simultaneously, like a skyscraper seen from an approaching car.”
The section ends unexpectedly with “Intimation,” a nightmarish parable where an unnamed narrator finds herself trapped in a dynamic house with a man who seems to think that they are in a relationship. Though the story reverts to the surrealism of the first section, after the three Karen stories it is difficult not to read this narrator, too, as Karen (or a version of Karen), and to interpret the story not simply as an allegory for marriage in general but for Karen’s marriage to Dan (or her awkwardness with the German). What’s more, the piece invites the reader to think back to the stories in section one, particularly “Fairy Tale,” and insert Karen into those narrative as well. Like an avocado pit surrounded by malleable flesh, the Karen stories orient the pieces around them, providing the reader a notion of center.
The third section is more similar to the first than to the second, though categorized less by anxiety than by full-blown desperation. In “Fake Blood” a woman arrives in costume to a non-costume party, where her bloody outfit is construed by the other guests as evidence of a murder mystery game. Their belief in such a game causes people to misinterpret the real murders that begin to occur, even as the narrator attempts to convince them otherwise. The disjointed vignettes of “Rabbit Starvation” use the conceit of fluffy whiteness to explore the existential horror of aberration and loneliness, from a cotton ball sorting facility to accounts of Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal South Pole expedition to the thoughts of a person trapped in a room full of rabbits: “Stack the rabbits. Number the rabbits. Place a fingertip on the nose and stroke from forehead over spine to the tip of its adorable puff. Regret and regroup. Enumerate the possibilities. Write messages in the sky.”
The final story, “You, Disappearing,” is a dystopian tale of a world laid waste by the incremental disappearance of objects: apples, trousers, magazines, parts of Ferris wheels. “Nobody thought the apocalypse would be so polite and quirky. Things just popped out of existence, like they had forgotten all about themselves. Now when you misplaced your keys, you didn’t go looking for them.” But pets disappear as well, as do people, memories, even entire concepts. The narrator is unnamed, though she is in love with an architect. They are unmarried, without children, torn apart by the disparate ways they react to a world in which the disappearance of all things is inevitable. “There had been times,” the narrator writes of her boyfriend, “when I thought I might be with you indefinitely, something approaching an entire life. But then when there was only a finite amount of time, a thing we could see the limit of, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know how to use a unit of time like this, too long for a game of chess or a movie but so much shorter than we had imagined.” The story is perhaps the collection’s strongest, benefiting not only from the intimacies of this unnamed couple, but from the accrued emotions of all that has come before it: the lives (or potential lives) the reader has lived with Karen, lives which will not occur in the world of this final tale.
It is interesting that Intimations should appear so shortly on the heels of the American publication of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. Though the books are largely dissimilar, they both take well-established strategies for giving a novel an innovative kick and apply them to the medium of the short fiction collection. (Some reviewers have referred to Pond, which is composed of self-contained short stories, as a novel. They are mistaken. Mislabeling a linked short story collection as a novel does a disservice to both forms.) In the case of Pond, Bennett adapts the accumulating, knot-of-language aesthetic used successfully in the works of David Markson and, more recently, Eimear McBride. Kleeman, on the other hand, is working in the surrealism-neighboring-naturalism tradition of preceding wunderkinds like Téa Obreht and Jonathan Safran Foer, where sections of dreamlike allegory supplement sections telling the primary “real life” story. These tropes, when employed by novelists, have grown to feel quite domesticated over time, anchored as they are to book-length narratives that mostly guarantee a sense of progress by the end. In applying them to story collections, Bennett and Kleeman have essentially thrown out the instruction manual, allowing the reader to assemble whatever larger narrative they are able, knowing it will be incomplete and that there may even some parts leftover.
Save for a few standouts, the stories are not as strong, individually, as their original publications (The New Yorker, The Paris Review) might suggest. Several pieces obstruct more than they aid in explication. At 40 pages, “A Brief History of Weather” is a collection within a collection, divided into titled sections that follow a family’s attempt to create a house immune from and absent of any weather. It feels like Kleeman’s attempt to create her own Cooverian fragmentary epic (à la “The Gingerbread House” or “Seven Exemplary Fictions”), but the motifs are a bit too spasmodic and numerous (games, Russian dolls, unattributed quotes, an invented twin) to add up to anything coherent. The ethereal “Hylomorphosis” reads (purposefully) like a piece of 16th-century angelology that, while initially promisingly, refuses to solidify into anything digestible for mortal readers. Even the Karen stories are rather unexceptional when removed from their context in the book. Cumulatively, though, the collection offers an experience that is more surprising and, in some ways, more provoking than that of a standard collection composed of better stories. Kleeman is masterful at the sentence level. At the book level, she is ambitious and inventive. Once she works out the interstitials, she’ll be spawning imitators of her own.
I left New York for Windhoek in early October, exchanging the end of an Indian summer for the beginning of an African summer. Around January, I began to despair of my lost winter, and I experienced that peculiar disorder in which the current season obliterates the memory – indeed, the existence – of all other seasons. Maybe John Crowley felt the same way when he wrote: “Love is a myth, like summer. In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.”
I bought Crowley’s Little, Big shortly before I came to Windhoek. After special-ordering it from my local bookstore, I waited patiently for it to arrive, sustained by Harold Bloom’s assurance that it was a book he “regularly reread[s].” The family tree in the introductory pages, the flowery miniature work throughout, and the headings (“Sylvie and Destiny,” “Some Notes About Them,” “Lady with the Alligator Purse,” and “Still Unstolen,” among others) within chapters within books immediately won my heart. But Little, Big was not such an easy conquest, especially for a reader like me who loves devouring books whole and quick. For the first hundred pages or so, I felt the way I feel when I eat a hardboiled egg too fast and I have to stand still, sipping water until the thickness passes through my gullet. I foundered, starting and stopping the book numerous times over the course of three months. Its extended, reproachful presence on the windowsill next to my bed began to undermine my vision of myself as a diligent and avid reader.
Finally, I cut the nonsense and undertook one of my approximately bi-monthly, epic reading nights, in which I stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning finishing a book, then stay awake another hour thinking about the book. (George Eliot’s Middlemarch inspired the last such night.) Little, Big squeezed the sides of my brain and fought me for each page. In one story line, Sophie Drinkwater, a probable descendant of fairies, unknowingly goes for years without sleeping, only to have her sleep finally returned by the child who was once stolen from her and replaced with an ancient baby-like creature who eats coals. That’s a fair interpretation of what it felt like to read and finish the book.
The book truly is little and big at the same time: relationships fated for a hundred years last for one month; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is resurrected as a New York-based political leader who fights for a kingdom the size of a thumb; Smoky Barnable is instructed to travel by foot, not by bus or train, from New York City to Edgewood – a house that swallows people up in its architectural mishmash – in order to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, another fairy descendant; their son, Auberon, meets a girl with a Destiny in New York, while he writes the story of his fairy-sprinkled family into the plotline of a soap opera. They are all part of a tale that is foretold in a stack of cards. I was often lost in the book’s epic relationships and murky details, in the same way that visitors to Edgewood become lost within its endless corridors and transient doorways. I don’t think I could say what the Tale exactly was, what fairies are, or who won the final battle. This thin veil between knowing and not knowing seemed natural, deliberate, and inevitable with a book whose subtle magic lies in leaving patterns half-obscured and cataclysms unrealized.
Harold Bloom is right. It is a tale that requires multiple readings, whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return. But I think I will wait to come home from dusty Windhoek, where I first met this book, until I can sit down in the enclosure of a deep American winter to return, by foot, to Little, Big. By then, my endless summer will be a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.
Bonus Link: Celebrating the anniversary of Little, Big