Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Short Stories by Etgar Keret and Robert Shearman

I got books for Christmas, mostly things that Adam Marek recommended during the reading he gave in Bridport in November. So far I’ve read Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman, Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, I’m nearly finished The Girl on the Fridge by the same author, and I’ve read Apples by Richard Milward (this one wasn’t a Marek recommendation). What lead me to put Milward on my list was seeing this video of him doing a reading of his latest book. I liked that he transformed his head into a block of flats before doing the reading.

Both Shearman and Keret are amazing writers. I think Shearman is the better of the two; his stories are subtle and pack a lot more punch because I know there’s a lot going on in them.

Many of Keret’s stories are amazing. I think the stories in The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God are generally stronger than those in The Girl on the Fridge. I love Good Intentions, wherein a pro-assassin is hired to kill off the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, “the only good man I’d ever known”, a man who saved the assassin from orphanage beatings in his youth. He can’t do it, despite his 100% success rate in previous jobs. The ending is particularly strong, but I won’t go into it here. Keret’s endings tend to be very open. I think his stories demonstrate how it’s fine to leave everything hanging and unsaid, stories don’t always need a neat bow to round everything off.  

What I really, really like about Keret’s style is that his writing is so minimalist and bare, yet so vivid. The last story in The Bus Driver.. is Kneller’s Happy Campers. This was adapted into a film called Wristcutters, a Love Story. (See trailer below) The story is by far the longest in the book and is divided into twenty-six chapters, each about 300-600 words (his usual story length). The entire thing is forty pages. Any other writer would need five times that to tell this story – it’s enough to fill a feature length film. I think Keret is what I’d call a Conceptual Writer, by which I mean his stories are not really driven by character, plot or beautiful language, they are driven by an idea. The beauty of his prose is in its concise nature. Less is more, and there certainly is less in Keret’s work.

Keret manages to make stories out of anything and everything. Sometimes I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps I’ve just missed the point, but I’ve tried hard to delve deeper into some of the weaker ones, and still haven’t managed to figure it out. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his stories, I like them for being little vignettes. I think what I’m trying to say is that I feel I could write a (weaker) Keret story without breaking into too much sweat, but Shearman is totally beyond me.

Shearman’s work is so multi-faceted. The collection I read were all love stories, yet not a single one could be described as clichéd or soppy. Most of them left me with a raw sadness (in a good way). They are simultaneously uplifting and crushing. In the story Be of Good Cheer, Gillian is allergic to other people’s happiness. “I’d take her to the cinema, making sure that the film was suitably depressing first. But it wasn’t enough to see films about depressing subjects, about heroin addicts or holocaust victims. Good films, no matter how dour, were still curiously uplifting, sent a ripple of unity around the audience that quite made Gillian gnash her teeth in distress.” I think some of Shearman’s stories are like that; though none of them could be described as dour, they’re all too light-hearted in their tone for that.

As for Milward’s Apples, it doesn’t really belong in this discussion because it’s from a different genre. Apples is well written, but I couldn’t connect to the characters, they were all too far from me and my life. I might talk about this in greater depth sometime soon because it did interest me in regards to teen fiction and reluctant readers. More on that later.

More on these authors:

and here with a story I read a while ago, before I knew who Keret was:

Shearman is best known for writing the Doctor Who episode that re-introduced the Daleks. Here’s a clip from that episode: 

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