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‘Fungus’: Who’s to Blame When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters?

When authors write stories, they play God. The results can be devastating.

Etgar Keret
March 26, 2014

The skinny guy fell to the café floor. His stomach hurt more than he thought it ever could. A series of involuntary spasms shook his body. “This is what it must be like when you’re going to die,” he thought. “But this can’t be the end. I’m too young, and it’s too embarrassing to die like this, in shorts and Crocs, on the floor of a café that was once trendy but hasn’t been making a go of it for years.” The guy opened his mouth to scream for help, but he didn’t have enough air in his lungs to let out a scream. This story isn’t about him.

The waitress who went over to the skinny guy was named Galia. She never wanted to be a waitress. She’d always dreamed of teaching school. But there’s no money in teaching school, and there was in waitressing. Not an awful lot, but enough to cover her rent and all. That year, she’d started studying special education at Beit Berl College. On the days she was at school, she worked the night shift at the café. Not even a dog came to the café at night, and she earned less than half the tips, but school was important to her. “Are you OK?” she asked the guy on the floor. She knew he wasn’t, but she asked anyway, out of embarrassment. This story isn’t about her either.

“I’m dying,” the guy said, “I’m dying, call an ambulance.”

“There’s no point,” said a dark-skinned, bald guy sitting at the bar reading the financial pages. “It’ll take about an hour for the ambulance to get here. They cut their budget down to the bone. They work Saturday hours all week now.” While the man was telling her that, he was hauling the skinny guy onto his back, and added, “I’ll take him to the E.R. My car is parked right outside.” He did that because he was a good man, because he was a good man and wanted the waitress to see that. Five months had passed since his divorce, and that sentence and a half was the closest he’d come in that period to having an intimate conversation with a pretty girl. This story isn’t about him either.

Traffic was jammed up all the way to the hospital. The skinny guy, who was lying in the back of the car, moaned in an almost inaudible voice and drooled on the upholstery of the dark-skinned bald guy’s new Alfa sports model. When he got divorced, his friends told him that he had to replace his family-sized Mitsubishi with something else, a bachelor’s car. Girls learn a lot about you from the car you drive. A Mitsubishi says: wiped out divorced guy seeks shrew to take place of last bitch. An Alfa sports car says: a cool guy, young at heart, seeks adventure. That skinny guy convulsing in the back seat was a kind of adventure. The bald guy thought, “I’m like an ambulance now. I don’t have a siren but I can beep for other cars to let me pass, go through red lights, like in the movies.” While he was thinking all that, he almost floored the gas pedal. While he was thinking all that, a white Renault van crashed into the side of his Alfa. The driver of the Renault was religious. The driver of the Renault didn’t have his seat belt on. The crash killed him on the spot. This story isn’t about him either.

Whose fault was the crash? The dark-skinned bald guy who accelerated and ignored the stop sign? Not really. The van driver who didn’t buckle his seat belt and was driving over the speed limit? Not him either. There’s only one person responsible for that accident. Why did I invent all these people? Why did I kill a guy wearing a yarmulke who never did anything to me? Why did I make a nonexistent guy have pain? Why did I destroy a dark-skinned bald guy’s family unit? The fact that you invent something doesn’t exempt you from responsibility and, unlike life, where you can shrug and point up to God in heaven, there’s no excuse here. In a story, you’re God. If your protagonist failed, it’s only because you made him fail. If something bad happened to him, it’s only because you wanted it to. You wanted to watch him wallow in his own blood.

My wife comes in the room and asks, “Are you writing?” She wants to ask me something. Something else. I can see it on her face, but at the same time, she doesn’t want to interrupt me. She doesn’t want to, but she already has. I say yes, but never mind. This story isn’t working. It’s not even a story. It’s an itch. It’s a fungus under my fingernail. She nods as if she understands what I’m talking about. She doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me. This story is about us.

Translated by Sondra Silverston


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Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.

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