Kurt Cobain, The Afterlife

51K7hqIHV7LEtgar Keret is an odd duck.

I could debate whether the quirkiness of his stories is best attributed to a “lost in translation” type of effect, but even that kind of discrepancy wouldn’t be enough to account for how unique they are, and how downright weird. In reading up on the author (thank you Wikipedia) I found that his stories are widely popular among Israeli youth, who see them as something of a reflection on their national ethos. What does this mean? While American 20-somethings are texting and playing video games, young adults in Israel are poignantly preoccupied with thoughts of life and death, heaven and hell, good and evil.

Indeed, many of the stories in The Bus Driver who Wanted to be God touch on some of those central themes: the meaning of life, what happens after we die, the fairness of God. Some reference Israeli youths’ (mandatory) time in the military, while others touch on Holocaust Remembrance Day, for obvious reasons a rather heavy subject there.

Yet despite its dark themes, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Bus Driver in particular, and Keret in general, is funny. Not laugh out loud funny, often not even chuckle to oneself funny, but humorous in a darker way, in a way that suggests lamenting the injustices of life is pointless, so laughing about them seems like a good second choice.

One story in particular, the last one in the book and its longest, highlights this best: It’s set in a world where everyone goes who has killed themselves, a world that is little more than a drab facsimile of where we are now. Kurt Cobain is there–“I think there’s thing that after you off yourself, with the way it hurts and everythingβ€”and it hurts like hellβ€”the last thing you give a shit about is somebody with nothing on his mind except singing about how unhappy he is.” So are the suicide bombers (the main character’s rather tactless friend asks one of them how many people he took out with him when he offed himself.)Β  There are people marked by the scars of their act–slashed wrists, head wounds–and there are Juliets, anyone who committed suicide with pills or poison and made it to the afterworld without a mark.

I couldn’t tell you specifically what the point of this story was, or any of them really. (Sidenote: That particular one was made into a movie called Wristcutters: A Love Story.) Perhaps that life is just a series of small miracles mixed in with a lot of boring routine, and the best way to get through it is by appreciating the former while resigning yourself to the latter. Either way, Keret manages to get all of this across in a book that doesn’t even top 130 pages and stories that generally doesn’t exceed three.

Short stories are hit or miss–for me, the format often makes it too easy to put a book down, and too difficult to get engrossed. But Keret manages to avoid that trap; Bus Driver would be as enjoyable as a toilet-side read as it was a curled-up-in-bed one. The stories are quick, accessible and uniquely voiced (my favorite line: “Some children have to run away from home in the middle of the night to join the circus, but Dad took me in his car.”) But they touch on themes far beyond their brevity. Plus, while there’s always merit in a book that takes you somewhere physically–historical nonfiction, novels set in foreign countries–it’s fascinating to read something that transports you emotionally and shines a light on another culture’s likes, dislikes, prejudices and concerns. That kind of insight is as invaluable as it is interesting.

TITLE: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories
AUTHOR: Edgar Keret
PAGES: 130 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Nimrod Flipout, Missing Kissinger
SORTA LIKE: No One Belongs Here More Than You meets Dogma
FIRST LINE: “This is the story about a bus driver who would never open the door of the bus for people who were late.”

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