The many stories (36) in Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, Etgar Keret's new collection, veer between bizarre subjects—from goldfish that grant wishes to paralyzed insurance salesmen, from wronged lovers to a land where the lies we tell live. More essentially, these stories are about coping with loneliness and alienation in the modern world.
Sometimes touching on politics, money, love, and family, Keret chooses many venues to explore his themes and characters. The stories are mostly set in his home country of Israel, though not in a distracting way; politics and culture appear only as they bear on the characters, never dictating the course of the tale. Stories spin around a single idea or conceit, take a turn, and are then done. A story of more than four pages is rare. Keret's as surreal and absurdist as ever, but this collection is a little short on the humor that erupted throughout his last American collection, The Nimrod Flipout. He's from the parable side of the McSweeney's school of writing, but more fun and less pretentious. In "Cheesus Christ," the tales of four disparate characters are joined together in a long paragraph: a man stabbed to death in a hamburger chain; the night manager holding his hand as he dies; the chronically depressed CEO of the chain; and the Iraqi war refugee who prescribes the CEO's medications. "What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?" follows a man making a documentary wherein he asks strangers what they would ask for if they found a goldfish who grants wishes.
Keret's quirky, oblique style does well in translation, though sometimes his breathless pace feels disjointed. And he knows how to make a story land. He's a strong finisher with divergent results, sometimes corny but satisfying, other times melancholy and unresolved. He lies somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut and Kilgore Trout in the bizarre, the humane, and the satiric.
Another theme in the collection is storytelling itself; why and how people do it. The first story involves a series of strange characters threatening Keret with violence unless he makes up a story. Throughout the collection are stories about writers, liars, and dreamers, who are not just trying to fight loneliness, but the world. With his first collection in 10 years, Keret may not be winning the fight, but he is having fun.