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Why Etgar Keret is worth your time at the Ottawa Writers Fest

By Alessandro Marcon on April 18, 2013

Despite his shrill voice, pedantic charisma and somewhat smarmy aura, Nardwuar the Human Serviette gives great interviews. Especially deft are his closes, where he commonly asks “Why should people care about (the artist/band that are engaged in the interview)?”

Many respond like well-seasoned self-promoters. Some scoff. Others are humbled and end up chewing their way through some kind of statement which they hope straddles the divisive line between the aloof and the thoughtful. But probably now more than ever – in our information age, where everyone is producing– the question proves fruitful; why should we care? I ask myself this often, especially when I sit down to type out some text for the internet.

This week is writer’s fest, and on April 20th, Etgar Keret will be speaking with Jonathan Goldstein. Etgar Keret is one of my favorite contemporary writers, and I’ll be in attendance. But why should you care? Well, If you don’t like reading or the telling of stories, you probably shouldn’t. But if you do, and don’t know Keret, he’s worth checking out.

A commonly used maxim states that a book either appeals to our hearts or our heads. By appealing to our hearts – despite the fact that it’s nothing more than blood pump – a work hits us emotionally. For the hearty, Keret’s work invigorates. What makes his work so “human”, as so many critics have suggested it does, is that Keret, similar to Kafka (one of his strongest influences), deals with the trapping of life which everyone experiences and from which no one escapes. These are the snares of every action, every decision, every situation which wraps its arms around us and which we must deal with. While not every reader can relate to every circumstance which Keret describes in his stories, every person knows that our past and our decisions lurk in our basements and cabinets, in the tubes of our toothpaste and on the soles of our shoes. We, for the eternity our lives, will always wake up in the world as ourselves, and despite new jobs, or partners, or cars, or life changes, there’s nothing we can do about it. For Keret’s characters, these moments of capture prove to be sad, scary and many times funny.

David Foster Wallace when writing (and speaking) about Kafka’s humour – specifically the difficulty in understanding why it is that Kafka is funny – stated that “ The horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle…Our endless journey toward home is in fact our home.”  Keret works in a similar strain. His stories, while both comedic and sad, are sometimes reflective and at other times blunt. Noted are the ways that characters act and are acted upon many times without that diachronic why we are so accustomed to seeing in our fiction. Like a French New-Wave film, in a Keret story, sometimes life just happens. Many narratives blur the lines between fantasy and reality. They slip into subconscious dream states, or surreal adventures.  And while this might sound gimmicky, what makes it all work is the notion that while we are in fact trapped, utterly trapped, we never lose the ability to imagine; the what-if never dies. It’s always beside us.

For the brainy, (the craft diggers – those searching for the “new”) – Keret’s most salient trait is the length of his fiction. His most recent collection, “Suddenly, a Knock at the Door” is 176 pages and has 30-odd stories. Keret has a knack for getting to the “incident” so incredibly fast and yet, simultaneously, fleshing out the characters in such a way that we care for them, can understand their plight, or – and most importantly – are willing, in the absence of those two, to go along for the ride. His hooks are ingeniously hooky, and his terse yet subtly poetic prose is perfectly rendered to provide insight where we want it and background fleshing when we need it. His stories are delicious little gems that remind me at times of the work of Shiela Heti. They are strange and fun, distinctively amoral and, for the most part, were able to catch me by surprise.

Not everything in the collection leaps off the page. Some pieces feel unfinished, and in others, particularly the longer ones, the pace seems to drag and the narrative loses the quick zing and startling turns which Keret usually uses so cleverly.

It’s a pretty special treat to have Keret here in Ottawa, and unlike many writers, he truly enjoys doing readings. It should be thought provoking and fun to hear the conversation between Goldstein and this award-winning Israeli writer of both stories and scripts.

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door is taking place at the National Arts Center Panorama room (53 Elgin) this Saturday, April 20 at 8:30pm. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 at the door or $15/$17 for the reduced price and free for members.