Why flash fiction is an overrated genre, and why Etgar Keret is a master of it

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Etgar Keret's latest short story collection is out now (Martina Kenji)
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Israeli writer Etgar Keret, whose latest short story collection, Suddenly, a Knock at the Door, is out today, is masterful at a genre—flash fiction—that has little to recommend it.

Defined as stories of 1,000 words or less, flash fiction has also spawned microfiction, hint fiction, short short fiction, and a host of other indistinguishable subtypes. Flash fiction is not really a new innovation—a hundred years ago, Franz Kafka and Robert Walser wrote pieces that could fit the label—but it's the kind of cultural product that's easily hawked as suited for our age.

A few years ago, flash fiction swept through the world of literary journals, with hardly a week going by without a new contest or site devoted to publishing the best works shorter than your average Yelp review. Esquire and Vogue, two magazines that almost never publish fiction (though they used to regularly), exploited the genre, with the former calling it “Napkin Fiction,” the idea being that it was written on the limp serviette slipped under your double-malt.  

The problem with flash fiction is that much of it isn't very good. Boosters like to say that So-and-so packs more into a thousand words than most writers do into a novel, but that's almost never true—particularly when you consider that time spent with a novel, and all of the mental and emotional investment that that requires, is one of its principal features. Instead, most flash fiction is too brief and self-satisfied to strike more than one note. Often, it's a joke told too long or a conceit that doesn't become anything else. It's literary tokenism, stories to be consumed between commercial breaks.  

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But back to Etgar Keret, who on his own seems to rehabilitate the genre. For twenty years, Keret has been writing deviously strange, fabulist stories, most of which are only a few pages long. (His closest American analog may be Donald Barthelme.) Keret has also collaborated with artists on graphic novels, written for film and television, and co-directed a very good movie, Jellyfish, with his wife, Shira Geffen. He's now one of Israel's most popular artists, and through his books and widely published personal essays, he has increasingly become known to English-speaking audiences.  

A typical Keret story is about a lonely man (he might be divorced or widowed at a premature age), plumbing issues of sexual frustration, thwarted romance, or the foreignness of life. Failure and humiliation are the order of the day. The prose is light and vernacular, with few descriptions, and the stories often end on a note of transcendence. A fine early Keret story describes a man's girlfriend turning into a man each night; at first the transformation is frightening but then becomes somehow comforting, especially because they can watch soccer together. Another describes a young man whose immigrant grandfather forces him to wear his I.D.F. uniform when he confronts a group of children playing in a tree. The children recognize the young man's insignia and mock him for having a desk job; his grandmother then has to rescue him.

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door is the fifth major Keret collection translated into English, and for those unfamiliar with his work, it's a worthwhile introduction. There are 36 stories here, and a few of them could jostle for place among Keret's best. In “Unzipping,” a woman named Ella finds a zipper under her sleeping boyfriend's tongue and pulls it: “her whole Tsiki opened up like an oyster, and inside was Jurgen.” Life with Jurgen is difficult—he's good in the sack but speaks Hebrew terribly and berates Ella about Israel's problems—until he leaves her for his home city of Düsseldorf. Months later, Ella finds the “Tsiki wrapping” and thinks of her old boyfriend. Staring in the mirror, she discovers that she has a zipper of her own, and the story ends with Ella pondering whether to pull her zipper and what she'd be like if she did. It's an exquisite, ineffable moment, one that Keret has a knack for: the radical physical transformation as a stand-in for an emotional one.  

There are also some stories in the collection that show the pitfalls of the form and of Keret as a writer. His endings can be treacly or overwrought, an attempt to make up for abbreviated plots. In “Miron,” an otherwise well-conceived tale, a man in a café goads strangers into encounters by pretending to know them. He's lonely, of course—his wife has left him—and just enjoys the interactions, negotiating with a stranger over an unspecified deal or telling a blind date (who meant to meet someone else) that they're probably not right for each other. But the scheme goes wrong when Miron pretends he's slept with a man's wife. The man beats Miron, and the story ends with Miron on the floor, thinking about the assailant's wife:

Miron nodded slowly and shut his eyes. He tried as hard as he could to imagine himself with that woman. The one he'd never see again. He tried, and for a moment he almost succeeded. His whole body ached. He felt alive.

The scene is interesting because, as Keret's characters often do, Miron lays claim to an emotional state to which he has no right. He's never seen this woman. But in envisioning this impossible liaison, he fashions meaning out of it, and finds himself overcome by loss. On the other hand, Keret hammers home this idea too forcefully, particularly in the last couple of sentences. There's an unnecessary literalism to it—“He felt alive”—as well as the clichéd notion that the adrenaline of violence can wake someone out of his torpor.  

Many Israeli writers find themselves contending with hamatzav, or “the situation,” the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the tension endemic to daily life. The title story of this collection, the first in the book, almost defies that obligation. The story describes a writer confronting several intruders who demand, at gunpoint, that he tell a story. (“In this country, if you want something, you have to use force,” one of them says.) When the writer starts to describe what's happening in front of him, one of the intruders protests: “Exactly what we're trying to run away from. Don't you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck. Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way.”  

This may in fact be a declaration of principles for this book, for it shies away more than Keret's other work from the particularity of Israeli life. There's an occasional mention of military service or a joke about a man who claims to be friends with Netanyahu, but the Israeliness has largely been decanted out of these stories (several are set in America). There is no sense of place, hardly a touch of local color. Life is elsewhere.  

Yet one of Keret's great talents has to been to cast the absurd and frightening reality of Israeli and Palestinian life through his magical-realist lens. While “Zipping” is an excellent story, Keret arguably did a better version of it in “Not Human Beings,” a story from his last collection, where an I.D.F. soldier guts a Gazan man, revealing him to be stuffed with “rolled-up flags, flyers, candy, and phone tokens.” Macabre and even uncomfortably funny, the story pivots on the notion of dehumanization taken to its literal extreme. Others, like “The Night the Buses Died,” use the specter of political violence—some buses, practically made anthropomorphic, appear to have been “murdered,” and a distraught crowd gathers—in novel ways.  

This collection, then, will be useful in padding out Keret's inevitable volume of collected stories. But it is frustrating to find a writer, whether out of defiance or exhaustion, avoiding many of the issues that he's most equipped to tackle. Flash fiction seems on the verge of losing one of its few worthy champions.