“Tell me a story,” commands the first sentence of Etgar Keret’s “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.” Three men with guns and cleavers command Keret to entertain them in the opening title, continuing, “Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a rubbish truck. Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way.”
And Keret does just that, with 35 tales of the absurd, heartrending and most human of emotions transmuted through the magical lens of his unique worldview. The English translation of his fifth collection of modern fables, released last month, has shot to the top of Amazon’s best-selling short-story list and has earned praise from around the globe.
The New York Times, which previously named Keret “a genius,” said the new book is “more mature” and Keret is an “expert at capturing the whims and anxieties of children.”
The Guardian agreed that the work “brims with invention.” While the reader may sometimes “tire of so much relentless wit and invention,” to “complain about Keret being Keret is like complaining about Chekhov being Chekhov.”
“If you have room in your heart, wallet or reading list for just one book of short stories this year, make it Etgar Keret’s ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,’” the Los Angeles Times wrote.
The Washington Post, Time Out New York, The San Francisco Chronicle and Entertainment Weekly had similar praise to spare for the Israeli author. “I’ve received good reviews in the United States and England before, but this time they’re both better and from wall to wall,” Keret told Haaretz about the responses he’d received.
“Suddenly, a Knock on the Door” is at its best when Keret follows his own command, and tells stories that are “something from nothing,” rather than “something from something.”
"When you write, the very bottom line is passion to share something with people," Keret explained during an April panel dubbed Whimsical Visions. "If you meet a girl and you kiss her, and you feel you’re floating in air, then why not write that you’re floating in air, just because someone on the Discovery Channel said it’s something you can’t do."
Reality is "not truth," Keret continued. "It's just something we all agreed upon."
For Keret, writing is like a trust fall. "I start falling back, and I wait for the story to catch me," Keret said. "Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, and you wake with a bump on the head."
Standout “Lieland” finds its hero with his arm down a hole in the ground, turning the knob of a gumball machine. But instead of receiving the hard candy, he is transported to a land where all of his lies have made a home, surviving the foibles he had imagined for them.
In “The Story, Victorious,” the art of storytelling takes center stage. “This story is the best story in the book. More than that, this story is the best story in the world … It’s super contemporary, and timelessly literary.”
Though Keret plays with language, it is not the emphasis of his work. Story is held above all else, with prose chosen so as not to distract from plot. Often Keret inspects the various forms of injustice in the world, from “The Polite Little Boy” whose parents fight anyway, to a black man made in a damaged God’s image in “Pick a Color.”
In “Guava,” a man selflessly wishes for world peace in his final moments, flabbergasting the angel tasked with carrying out the missive. Unfortunately, the man is reincarnated as a guava fruit, and cannot enjoy the peace he created, existing in perpetual fear of falling from his high perch in the tree to the hard ground.
Keret told Metro, “I always say that I'm not completely sure that Israel is the best place to live in but I am sure it is the best place to write in.”
Though some moments are undeniably Israeli—a waitress unhappily approaches to serve a suicide bomber in “Joseph”—Keret’s collection is, on the whole, shockingly universal. Even when it is the furthest from reality, “Suddenly” reflects our twisted daily lives, if only through a funhouse mirror.
Keret’s stories are impressively short, sometimes spanning only two pages, but pack an intensity and completeness most writers can only strive for. To top it off, the winding narratives never finish predictably. In “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?” an aspiring filmmaker knocks on random doors, asking residents what they would wish of a magical goldfish. He’s got the perfect film—complete with an Arab man wishing for peace in the Middle East—until he knocks on Sergei Goralick’s door, who happens to have such a fish in a jar on his kitchen counter.
Every world in Keret’s book is a candy-coated gumball, perfect in its completeness, and sweetly tangy when chewed over. But eat too many at once, and readers may get a stomachache.
Listen to Ira Glass read the titular story, "Suddenly, a Kock on the Door," from the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, here.