Fighting jet lag in the lobby of the discreetly swank Georgian hotel in Santa Monica, Keret, who's 40, looks a little like the rumpled slackers who people his stories. "Some people write from the brain or the heart. I write from the kishkes," he says cheerfully in accented but flowing English. "Telling a story is the easiest thing. The moment there is an emotion I can name, I can give you 20 stories to choose from. I always start from a sensation, an image, never a plot. For some writers, the act of writing is like construction or engineering, building consciously. For me, it's the exact opposite. The best metaphor is surfing. You go to the ocean, wait for some wave to hit you, and try to keep your balance. You don't have GPS or a map. It's like exploding, and you can't explode slowly."
It's true that Keret's short, sharp stories seem to spring fully formed from his unconscious onto the page. Visceral, prankish, angry and sad, blithely shifting between real and surreal, recklessly courting whimsy, his tales of Tel Aviv lost souls abound with suicide, depression, parental inadequacy, verbal and physical violence, breakups and divorces, nameless anxieties. His stories, and the short films he makes when he finishes a batch — his first feature, Jellyfish, arrived at Harkins Camelview 5 last week — are enormously popular in Israel, not least because they represent a sharp break with the collectivist political concerns of more-traditional realist writers like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua who came of age during the country's formative socialist period, or even the younger and formally more adventurous David Grossman. And in the relatively new state of Israel, where novelists still function as the political and social conscience of a nation of prodigious readers, literature has mattered from the word go. "There's no other country that was basically invented by writers," says Keret, citing the founding Zionist, Theodor Herzl, who wrote a blueprint for his dream of the Jewish state, albeit to be established in Uganda. "Both Israel and Tel Aviv existed in books before they existed in reality."
The domestic dysfunction in Keret's stories will be easily recognizable to Western readers, but it is uncomfortably fresh terrain to older Israelis reared on consensus and a self-conscious literature of collective identity. I hardly recognize the Israel in his work as the country I grew up in the early 1950s, or even the one where I returned to live in the early 1970s, when the Yom Kippur War shattered the country's military triumphalism, and successive waves of immigration from the Soviet Union and other countries began Israel's transformation from its Ashkenazi sovereignty over Sephardic Jews and Israeli Arabs into the far more chaotic melting pot that informs the work of a whole new generation of Israeli writers and artists. And that was without the influx throughout the 1990s of thousands of guest workers from all over the world, and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
"The transformation of Israel from a socialist to a capitalist society was something that created a wound," Keret insists. His writing probes that wound in the private sphere and in its own disenchanted language, inflected with playful allusions to American pop culture and an abiding sense of self-destructive violence. The Nimrod Flipout's hilarious, ineffably sad title story — which, at 24 pages, is practically a novella by Keret's standards — centers on three aimless army graduates successively afflicted by a contagious post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from their lingering grief over the suicide of a comrade.
Keret's preoccupation with violence, and the deceptively flippant slapstick with which it unfolds, have not sat well with some of Israel's veteran writers. Though Oz is a strong defender of his work, Yehoshua publicly attacked Keret's 1992 debut collection of stories, Pipelines, complaining that its brutality was something Keret had picked up from American movies rather than from anything in Israeli culture itself. "I write about the violence that I grew up with," Keret says matter-of-factly. "In a country where, for three years out of their lives, everybody who is 18 lives in a reality where he may kill people or see people get killed next to him, he may do things Americans would never do. I didn't serve in the occupied territories, but people who do know that if you knock on a door and it doesn't open, you kick it open. You can play the guitar, read Nietzsche, become a very good dentist, but you'll still do it. And once you cross that line, it's very difficult to uncross it. When your girlfriend won't talk to you and locks the door, you will still know how to kick it open."