It was a smart move to ask beloved Israeli weirdo Etgar Keret to co-edit Tel Aviv Noir, Israel’s entrée into Akashic Books’ expansive series of noir-themed fiction anthologies. Keret—aided by compatriot Assaf Gavron—allows his fantastical leanings to push beyond the genre’s typical boundaries. As a result, only a few stories invoke the genre’s classic tropes: more often than not, the streets are not rain-slicked, the dames not long of leg, and the mysteries not so compelling. In fact, the more memorable characters in this collection would be markedly out of place on the streets occupied by Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled heroes.
The upshot of this thematic liberalism is an anthology of startlingly varying quality. The stories that stick to Chandleresque modes of storytelling are often weaker than those that attempt subversion, perhaps because it’s so difficult to improve on the masters—I found myself torn between wanting the stories to hit the genre notes and then, when they often did, wanting them to subvert the clichés.
In the clunky opener “Sleeping Mask,” Gadi Taub’s protagonist narrates the story in relentless exposition; on the same page, we read that his “sex was like a tornado,” and that “everything was up in the air. [They] were playing with fire.” Lacking are the whimsies of The Big Sleep, or Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Instead, we’re given stock characters and stock plot set in motion by a conspicuously authorial voice.
The other stories in ‘Encounters,’ Part I the anthology, fair slightly better. In Matan Hermoni’s “Women,” a failed novelist meets the ghost of an obscure Polish poet while attending the funeral of famed Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, and they become roommates. “The Time-Slip Detective,” by Lavie Tidhar, is a particular highlight. Tidhar is a ghostly presence in the story itself: the protagonist, a journalist, is on assignment to interview Tidhar about his recent World Fantasy Award—which he won in 2012 for Osasma. The journalist finds himself magically transported to 1930s Mandate Palestine, where he is chased by a fictional detective from a series of Hebrew pulp novels. The disorienting and propulsive story allows for cliché—eyes are frequently twinkling and sparkling—but it feels earned in the context of smarter language: our journalist describes cars moving “like tiny beetles,” an unsettling image that calls to mind the surrealist shrinking of tilt-shift photography. A story of fused identities, disruptions in time, and literary parlor tricks, Tidhar’s piece is not the only one in the anthology to borrow heavily from Borges.
Part II, ‘Estrangements,’ falls flat, but contains a jewel in “Swirl,” by Norwegian journalist and critic Silje Bekeng. Her story finds the wife of a seldom-home foreign diplomat encountering the strange, spectral man who has been subtly misplacing objects in her apartment, whilst riots on the streets of Tel Aviv threaten to spill over into her world. Sandwiched between misfires from Gon Ben Ari and Julia Fermentto, “Swirl” shines.
If hints of noir seem absent from many of these stories, a pervasive sense of terror and violence certainly is not. In Taub’s story, one character warns another against hitchhiking, saying, “There are Arabs out there, trying to abduct soldiers.” The hero of Tidhar’s “Time Slip Detective” is comforted by the threat of terrorism when he returns to modern Israel. And in Alex Epstein’s eccentric and sadly too-short “Death in Pajamas,” the Grim Reaper visits a café while missiles erupt near Hadera, a double car bomb detonates in Jerusalem, and a pregnant Palestinian woman miscarries her twins because of a delay at a checkpoint. (It’s curious—and disappointing—that from a roster of international authors, including a Norwegian, a Colombian, and an Iranian, no Arab or Palestinian writers are represented.
Sensibly, Keret and Gavron save themselves for Part III, ‘Corpses,’ offering strong stories that finish a wildly uneven anthology on a high note, and illustrate the problems inherent in opening up the definitions of noir.
Keret’s “Allergies” is the story of a couple who can’t conceive, so they adopt a dog with a picky appetite and violent tendencies. The dog, as you would expect, threatens to derail their relationship. But smartly, Keret pivots from the obvious, and the story ends with a touching and absurdist twist. Though it’s dark, you’d be hard-pressed to identify a single detail that evokes the concept of ‘noir.’
Meanwhile, Gavron’s “Center” is noir subversion at its finest, featuring two renovators who pretend to be private detectives for a few days and wind up solving a gory murder mystery. Gavron brilliantly allows amateurs to take the reins in his story, perhaps signaling to the reader that he himself is an amateur in the genre. Instead of trying to best Chandler at his own perfected game, Gavron gives us lovable fools running amok in a noir universe. The result is a story that gleefully calls to mind the absurdist, hard-boiled logic of a Coen Brothers film.
Despite the unfortunate ratio of clunkers to winners, Tel Aviv Noir evokes the mood, sensitivities, and neuroses of Israeli life to good effect. As Keret asks in the introduction, “Tel Aviv is one of the happiest, friendliest, most liberal cities in the world. What could possibly be dark about our sunny city, a city nicknamed ‘The Bubble?'” Turns out, plenty—even if isn’t actually noir.
Zachary C. Solomon is a Brooklyn-based writer and fiction M.F.A. candidate at Brooklyn College. Follow him on Twitter at @z_solomon.