- The Nimrod Flipout
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pp.
Where’s Fatso When You Need Him?
You know how sometimes you’ll be having dinner with a woman and then, as the sun goes down, she’ll turn into a heavy, hairy man?
I didn’t either, not until I picked up Etgar Keret’s collection The Nimrod Flipout. After reading the first story, “Fatso,” the strangeness of that situation was so familiar to me I felt like I’d never dated anyone but beautiful women who became boorish hooligans with large pinky rings. Keret efficiently achieves the absurd by putting endearing characters in bizarre situations. With a deft touch of everyday magic, he impressively meets Ezra Pound’s famous challenge to “make it new.”
The only trouble with this collection is that there are two types of new to be made. The first is a new in relation to one’s peers, and Keret is as inventive as George Saunders. But the second kind of new is more of an interior concern. Shifting the gaze from originality of single stories to the range of the collection, The Nimrod Flipout as a whole loses momentum as it goes along. Repetition of pace and style wears away a hard-earned novelty as each successive story blends into the last. In some ways, the first half of this book is such a beautiful woman that I longed for her to become an equally wild and crazy man, complete with hairy back, pickup lines, and pinky rings. Instead, she just stayed beautiful, and I am ashamed to say that I selfishly, foolishly, I expected more than just great sex. I wanted a drinking buddy, too.
Of course, there are worse things than a beautiful woman.
This is especially true when said beautiful woman also possesses a great sense of humor and a treasure trove of the darkest fairy tales this side of the brothers Grimm. One of many examples is “Pride and Joy,” where Ehud Guznik realizes that his good grades and popularity are responsible for the sudden diminishing size of his parents. In order to keep them from shrinking away to nothing, he starts smoking to stunt his growth and his popularity. His grades drop, his girlfriend dumps him and his parents stop shrinking at a pocket-sized eight inches. In “Glittery Eyes,” a kindergarten girl longs to emulate the expression of a dirty little boy when he wants something badly. When he asks her to be his girlfriend, she rejects him “in a voice that her father used whenever she tried to run across the street or touch something electrical.” The girl then realizes she’ll never get what she wants, and the story ends with the boy’s eyes “glittering more and more fiercely, as if out of spite.” In the world of The Nimrod Flipout, that’s as happily ever after as we get: a just ending in a world we’ve just begun to understand, entirely through the clarity and specificity of its people.
This interaction between characters brings me back to “Fatso,” a four-page story featured on the radio program This American Life. The account of a man dating a beautiful-woman-slash-hairy-man is just four pages long but is as powerful as one of the book’s longer stories. Formally, “Fatso” is Keret at his finest. He starts out grabbing the reader with direct address (“Surprised? Of course I was surprised.”) and ends with the expansive: “And so it goes: every night you fall asleep with him struggling to stay awake for the Argentinean finals, and in the morning, there she is, the beautiful, forgiving woman who you love, too, till it hurts.”
Many of these stories take this arc – some almost down to the exact length. In fact, “Fatso,” “Angle,” “The Tits on an 18 Year Old,” “Shriki,” and “Ironclad Rules,” are all just four paragraphs. Some of these stories seem to try to capture the essence of the fatso the woman turns into. Like the fatso who “takes you to bars and restaurants you didn’t even know existed, and you dance on the tables together, and break plates like there’s no tomorrow,” these stories offer a glimmer of those strange new bars, that previously unknown secret world. We don’t get that in a story like “Tits,” which tries to access a taxicab driver who mocks his ex wife for calling him to pass along the news that their son has survived a helicopter crash. The driver cries at the end, which could be moving, if Keret had been able to show us more of this man’s change (as the protagonist of “Fatso” does a 180 about soccer). In four pages, that may be asking a lot. But that’s what Keret has attempted, and he achieves it in some places. The places where he does not are the places where he fails to go as deeply into his characters as he does in “Fatso,” “Glittery Eyes,” “Pride and Joy” or, especially, the longer pieces.
This thought on the shape of Keret’s stories (to paraphrase a title of one of the stronger pieces in the book’s second half), reminded me of John Barth’s definition of plot as an incremental perturbation of a static but unstable situation. Keret defines his situations extremely well – “A Thought in the Shape of the Story” creates a word where certain ideas take certain physical shapes or they are broken by a mob of people, “Angle” creates a world where the meek, hardworking pool player gets the girl. The problem arises when the increments, especially in the shorter stories, are illegible. While the reader sees incremental perturbations in “Fatso” – the girl cries, the guy takes him to bars he never knew about, the girl wakes up the next day, the guy sees he’s getting older – the increments are absent from a piece like “Tits.”
His best pieces are the ones where he presents not only the situation and the resolution, but the incremental ways that the often very moving resolution is thwarted along the way. It’s with this magic that Keret, an Israeli, addresses terrorism and the conflict between his own government and the Palestinian Authority. The dog that won’t die in “Shooting Tuvia,” and the talking fish in “Halibut” are clear symbols couched in a character-driven story, recalling title character in Bernard Malamud’s “The Jewbird.” Politics are clearly present but never overwhelm the interactions between his characters. The title story, “Surprise Egg,” and the frolicking, “Actually, I’ve Had Some Phenomenal Hard-Ons Lately,” each echoed long after I put this book down. The coroner in “Surprise Egg” must decide whether to tell the husband of a woman killed by a suicide bomber whether or not she would have been dead in months or even weeks because of tumors ravaging her body. The narrator of “Actually…” has to rationalize a blow job from his dog but also a marriage that he’d rather end like the marriage in “Surprise Egg.” In “The Nimrod Flipout,” long-dead friend makes rotating visitations as the quartet of bachelors his suicide made a trio dwindles to a duo. Each of these stories deals with relationships in a mad and fearful time and place, love in the time of intifada.
It’s hard not to read Keret and be reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Given the comic book aesthetic and Saturday morning cartoon length of some of Keret’s stories, it’s interesting to note that “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” perhaps Marquez’ most famous story, was intended (in an oft-omitted subtitle) as “a tale for children.”
Marquez’ set-up sounds like a Keret story: an angel on the way to take a sick child falls in a courtyard full of dead crabs. But troubles ensue – the arrival of the circus, a long correspondence with the Vatican, rain and crabs, a nosy next door neighbor to name a few. These might be a line or two in Keret’s story, but maybe they wouldn’t be in there at all. In Marquez’ story, the angel becomes unremarkable because the villagers “looked at him so long and so closely that [they] very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.”
By the end of the book, while I was entertained throughout and moved many times, I felt about Keret as the villagers felt about Marquez’ angel. I found myself struggling to decide whether “his passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease but of a cataclysm in repose.” The problems of The Nimrod Flipout – the problems of its writers world, and ours too – demands something as powerful as magic, combined not with passivity but cataclysm. Bring on the floods. We need more heroes. Or at the very least, another fatso or two.