Good short stories have an odd affect upon me. As an avid novel reader, I am conditioned for the long read that stretches themes and ideas out with the patience of a marathon runner’s endurance. An effective short story inversely feels like a winded sprint, packing a powerful message in an economy of words. With some short stories the sprint is so fast that I miss the message because my conditioning is wanting a grander view and I find myself quickly flipping to the next story in the collection as though it were the next chapter in a larger book. However, really good short stories cause me to pause, close the book and reflect upon the significance of the brief collection of words I’ve just digested. Etgar Keret’s slim collection titled The Nimrod Flip Out contains a little of both type of story: in these pages there are a few that just passed me by as I moved on to the next, but there were several that stopped me in my tracks, satisfying my linguistic desire for the moment’s reading.
With a total of 30 stories gathered in this 167 page collection, most of these stories are no longer than 2 or 3 pages long. With such brevity, Keret’s style is very blunt and to the point. Several of the stories have a surreal or magical element to them, such as Fatso, a story about the narrator’s girlfriend who morphs into a fat, balding, hard-drinking, womanizing, man every night or Pride and Joy, a story about a child who’s parents shrink with each inch he grows. However, Keret doesn’t pigeonhole himself into only using a magical style to get his point across as several of his better stories are poignant with a curt realism. Almost all of his stories do follow a pattern in setting up a believable background and then taking an abrupt turn in the narration by either distorting reality or adjusting the reader’s perspective to an alternate understanding of the situation that was set up.
An example of an effective realistic story that uses this device is the story titled The Tits of an Eighteen-Year-Old about a chauvinistic taxi driver who honks and catcalls young women as he drives his passengers around town. While he’s driving his anxious wife calls him on the radio because she’s heard about a helicopter crash and she’s worried that their military son may have been in the crash. The cabdriver ridicules his wife for worrying, assuring her that their son is fine, but she insists that she’s going to call the army to verify. After he’s off the radio he talks to his passenger about how foolish his wife is for worrying and then continues to catcall the women on the street. Later his wife calls back, to let him know that their son wasn’t in the crash and he responds to her “You dummy, I already told you fifteen minutes ago he was OK didn’t I?” and then continues to drive until “he saw a thin girl in a miniskirt who, turned around, frightened when he honked. “Get a load on that one,” he said, trying to hide his tears. “Say, wouldn’t you like to stick it to her?””(130). The entire message of the story is hidden in that one line trying to hide his tears. With those five words this three page story about an unlikable, chauvinistic, and overly confident man unfolds, revealing that this man isn’t as simple as he pretends to or appears to be. Those tears he tries to hide reveal the doubt, worry, and concern for his son that he would not share with his wife over the radio or in the curt conversations he has with his passengers.
Those five little words are an example of the linguistic adeptness buried within this collection of short stories. Some of my favorites stories were the more realistic ones such as Angle, a story about three friends who play pool. In this story one of the three friends is always on the side, while the two others play. Of the three friends, one is involved in a long term relationship and always on the phone with her, the second is juggling multiple women at the same time and always on the phone with them, and the third takes the game of pool to seriously to spend time calling women. As a twist, the two womanizers end up unhappy and the serious loner ends up happily with the pool hall waitress after his friends abandon him because they are too focused on calling their women and not very good at pool. My Girlfriend’s Naked is a story about a guy contemplating whether he should be upset or jealous that his girlfriend is sunbathing naked but he realizes that he is pretty lucky to have her as his girlfriend and that it would be ridiculous for him to be upset with her because even though she sunbathes naked for all to see, she chooses to be with him.
My favorite story in the collection, however was not a realistic story like those above, but was one that totally twisted reality and literary possibility. A Thought in the Shape of a Story had a simplistic, allegorical message to it, telling of a race of people that once lived on the moon who could make objects with their thoughts. To reduce chaos, the moon society agreed that certain objects would have specified meanings, just as the words of language have a culturally agreed meaning. There was one individual in the moon society who dreamed to travel the universe and he began building a spaceship with his thoughts, breaking down the conformist idea of what certain objects should mean. His actions seemed liked craziness to the moon society, so they destroyed his ship, but the impact of destroying the ship caused the nonconformist to have such intense thoughts of loneliness that the entire society of the moon was destroyed.
With thirty stories in this brief collection, Keret provides a diverse opportunity for a reader’s enjoyment and inspiration. He uses the short story to explore ideas that many novelists vaguely achieve in works hundreds of pages longer than this. The ideas and themes covered in The Nimrod Flip Out explore friendship, family, religion, Israeli culture, love, loss, deceit, adultery – a broad range of the human experience. He does so with whimsical brevity and sometimes jarring seriousness. There is a lot of good stuff to reflect upon in these pages and I’ll close with this pleasant reflection on death:
“A typical thought by way of example: at night, when we say we’re going to sleep and we get into bed and we shut our eyes, we’re not really asleep. We’re just pretending. We shut our eyes and breathe rhythmically, pretending to be asleep until the deceit grows slowly real. And maybe that’s how it is with death. Himme’s dad hadn’t died right away either. And the whole time when his eyes were shut and he wasn’t moving, you could still feel his pulse. Maybe Himme’s dad had been dying just like someone going to sleep – pretending until it became real. And if so, then it was altogether possible that if only Himme had interupted him in the process, jumped on his bed like a little kid, opened his eyes to make sure, shouted “Dad!” and tickled him – the whole deceit would have fallen apart.” (from Himme, 165)