Talking fish

Truth be told, I was expecting a lot of Keret from this collection (this is his second) after reading his short story, Creative Writing, in New Yorker--about a husband's insecurity towards his wife's creative writing workshops. That story is warm, poignant and mature. A part of its allure is the simplicity of Keret's language (or its translation from Hebrew): direct and devoid of any elaborations and theatrical effects.

The closest story to Creative Writing I've read was his two-page story, Dirt, which is about this man contemplating on two separate strings of possibilities: either he would be dead now, or he opens a self-service laundromat chain which will do well, even in the suburbs. The charm of his writing works for me: in two pages he was able to make up worlds from these possibilities: how his father can only feel revulsion thinking about how his son stuck up a gun in his head; how, in another world of laundromat success, his father would meet a friend in their laundromat, probably just another lonely person who goes to such places.

In the middle of his collection, one of his short stories, Glittery Eyes, had me realize that I had hit the gist of this varied collection. It is about our child-like tendencies fleshed out and contrasted with adult inflections and with precisely written behavior that borders on the awkward and the surreal. The whole confusing combo is written in the voice of a fable, where animals talk (the cover of the copy I bought at Booksale features a generic Jewish face in a rabbit suit, holding a shotgun); or a parable, where towards the end of each story you find yourself thinking about its moral, but oftentimes there isn't, even if sometimes, as in Halibut, it can be blatantly stated.

His quirky introductions paved way to his treatment of the story at hand, as he is wont to put unexpected twists in the story. In Glittery Eyes, it started with "This is a story about a little girl who loved glittery things...". In More Life, it starts with "This is one story you've got to hear!" In Actually, I've Had Some Phenomenal Hard-Ons Lately, the scene opens with a dog, Darko, "licking [the character's] morning erection." It's this confrontation of a simple, fable language masking an otherwise sexual smirk that's just adorable.

But there's more to that: from wives cheating on their husbands, the whims go on. His stories are told as if his readers are spending the night in a Boy Scout campfire, encircling him, the Scoutmaster, demanding to be entertained. In all fairness, he's doing a fine job of entertaining me: his stories are funny and witty. His collection is energetic, restless, and playful. It seemed to me that the book is an anthology of scenarios children would have thought of at dinner. It's that kind of a scenario that adults have treated with condescension, have frowned at for years, yet (and we hate to admit) it also gets much more interesting if not a little later, then at least before they hit the bed. It's silly, but it's not so silly.

I think most--if not all--of his stories work because of the length. The nearest simile I can think of with his writing is that it feels like masturbating--and then stopping it halfway to the climax. The climax, Keret implies, is yours to figure out: he puts the porn in front of you--the bed, the sultry lighting--but it's up to you to dream up things.

Of all the stories in the collection, Halibut never fails to send shivers down my spine. It's about two long-time friends: the narrator and this successful man. The meeting was a first after a couple of years, and in that restaurant at the seaside his friend is about to declare that he is marrying his long-time fiancee, which the narrator despises. His friend ordered the halibut, while he chose the talking fish, which the waitress described as a "talking fish served raw. It's lightly salted, but not spiced--."

Apparently, the fish didn't do the talking. "The fish... it doesn't talk," the narrator said, evidently pissed. The narrator went on for minutes, talking about the talking fish. Eventually, his friend lost his appetite, cursed at him while dashing out of the restaurant, leaving him with the talking fish sitting on his plate.

"Take off," it said, before the scene closes. "Grab a cab to the airport and hop on the first plane out. It doesn't matter where to."

It took me about three months to finish this review, simply because I can talk about it for hours.