"To the Moon and Back"
by Etgar Keret
translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
Originally published in the October 3, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

october-3-2016I’ve come to enjoy the short work of Etgar Keret, His first story to appear in The New Yorker was “Creative Writing,” back in the first week of 2012. I loved that story, and it was very short at just four columns (see my thoughts here). His next story, “One Gram Short,” was a bit longer, but not much, and it was also excellent (see Betsy’s thoughts here). Here’s hoping this weeks is as good or better!

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts below and let’s get to discussing this story!

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By |2016-09-27T12:05:34+00:00September 27th, 2016|Categories: Etgar Keret, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. David September 27, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Reading this story was a very unpleasant experience. Both the man and his son are horrible people who I would not willingly spend any time with. The father refers to everyone in insulting ways (“the bitch”, “Pimple-Face”, “The lady with yellow teeth”, “Fat Guy”), lies to his son about why they are going to the store, and refuses to accept no for an answer and just starts to take the cash register after being told no many times. The boy might be excused his single-minded insistence on having the cash register because of his age, but when he calls his father a liar and kicks him it seems clear he is just a chip off the ol’ block. At the end of the story when the father talks about them running to catch the drone all I could think was “I hope it hits them both in the face”.
    .
    The story steals its title from a much better story – the ending of the children’s book Guess How Much I Love You – and the story was already done much better in the film Life Is Beautiful, where a father shows his love for his son by the great lengths he is willing to go to make his son happy in the midst of so much evil. The only difference is that the characters in those stories were likable. I considered that perhaps this story is intended to be funny, but I don’t think so. Even if it was, the father comes off as the kind of guy who thinks he is charming and funny while actually being a pest to everyone around him.
    .
    I imagine that the author saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and thought that Veruca Salt’s father is an unsung hero. It seems he wanted to write a story to show how great a father this kind of man is. The result is awful from start to finish.

  2. Melinda September 27, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    According to Kerets interview with Deborah Treisman (“This Week in Fiction: Etgar Keret on the Purest Form of Racism”), this story illustrates a parent “placing his own child above all others, in essence, ‘the purest form of racism.’” The idea for his story, Keret says, came to him when “an Israeli soldier shot in the head a Palestinian terrorist who was already incapacitated, killing him.” Some portion of the public supported the killer, stating that “He is the child of all of us.”
    Keret’s story is set within the battleground of Lidor’s parent’s divorce. When the father, the story’s protagonist, is losing parental rights, he goes to unrealistic extremes to prove his love for his son Lidor. Lidor responds to his father’s unfair treatment of others with yet more childish demands; however, in the end, he admits his love for his father. And his father feels, at least to some extent, absolved; his unjust behavior towards others feels inconsequential to him due to his “inate” drive for his son’s love and laughter.
    While I understand that home and family are at the core of the individual and greatly affect how they will amass and react to political, moral and ethical issues, I couldn’t, as a parent, completely relate to this story or the writer’s views.

  3. David September 27, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Melinda, I read the interview as well and could not see how it was really connected to the story so I basically ignored it. If he had wanted to write about how problematic it might be to put the interests of your child ahead of the interests of others, the father did not have to be so loathsome in general. In fact, making him an awful person is the worst thing he could do to get in the way of that message. It would be easy enough to imagine a situation where a more sympathetic father is placed in a situation of responding to the needs (not the mere selfish wants) of the child where the compelling interests of others were also presented. So his story fails on two levels. It’s awful in it’s own right and it’s a very poor way to try to make the point he claims he was trying to make.

  4. Roger September 27, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    I just couldn’t buy this father as a character. He was too extreme, too implausible. I tried thinking of the story as satire. I also tried making generous allowances for the father’s behavior – perhaps life has treated him badly; he certainly seems embittered about his divorce, especially the custody arrangements. Even then, I just couldn’t believe in him. I couldn’t even dislike him; he is such a cartoon.

    The interview makes me think that this piece illustrates the pitfalls of an “idea” story. Keret wanted to make a particular philosophical point about human nature and he conjured up a few flat characters as marionettes to act out his point. As a result, they don’t feel alive on the page (or the screen). The story is too much a straightforward exercise of the writer’s will. I bet he imagined and wrote it, or at least the complete first draft, in a single afternoon. My hunch is he didn’t play with the characters, try different voices out on them, or open his mind to alternatives. So they are wooden and the story is an intellectual exercise that left me cold.

    It feels like the New Yorker served up a brittle dry cracker for this week’s fiction rather than the nice meal we hope for.

  5. Trevor Berrett September 28, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    I was not a fan of this story, either, and David and Roger explain why perfectly. It was a lame story in its own right and hardly imaginative. After all, we’ve all seen people who are kind of like this (so, in a sense, I didn’t have any trouble believing in the father as a character), and this story didn’t analyze that behavior or its consequences so much as just outline the repulsive behavior in blah prose.

    I think this is a general qualm I have with many New Yorker stories these days: the writer simply describes a setting with some rather ridiculous and/or mundane event and we’re supposed to somehow use that to explore the human condition or something. And David is right: we then go to the interview to see just what the author was going for and it’s bizarre to consider the possibility that they think they got there.

  6. Melinda September 28, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    David, I believe the purpose for the crude identifiers labeling the characters was to indicate how on edge the protagonist was in his marriage/divorce. Also, it showed that the father referred only to his son, Lidor, by name—another expression of his inequitable treatment of son vs. others.
    I felt the interview pertaining to the story was significant only because, like Trevor, it showed me how far off the writer was from what, I think, he intended to depict in the story. Keret wanted to show that in the midst of an unfavorable environment, a parent will go to extremes to protect his/her child from pain and suffering resulting from events beyond their grasp, his parent’s divorce. This story, instead, showed a protagonist who felt that his “persecution,” or mistreatment from wife and wife’s boyfriend, allowed for his bad behavior because he wanted his child to know his love. Instead of illustrating a vulnerable protagonist with a noble desire, the writer created a screwed up role model for his son to follow. It turned me against the protagonist, which, I felt, was the exact opposite of how the writer expected the reader to react.

  7. Eric September 29, 2016 at 9:08 am

    I thought this story could have worked as a wicked, pointed satire about the effects of spoiling your kid, and the two main characters were ideal for that purpose. But the story just isn’t funny, and without some laughs the central characters just seem like nasty, unpleasant people. For me, the resulting narrative comes across as too realistic, and too sympathetic to the main characters, to be effective satire, but not realistic or sympathetic enough to be effective drama. You can of course both satirize and sympathize with your characters–Kurt Vonnegut spent his whole career doing that–but again, you need laughs for that to work.

  8. Trevor Berrett September 29, 2016 at 11:21 am

    For me, the resulting narrative comes across as too realistic, and too sympathetic to the main characters, to be effective satire, but not realistic or sympathetic enough to be effective drama.

    Well put, Eric!

  9. Dan September 29, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    For me, one pleasure of short fiction is quickly reading and then rereading a story, which I’ve done with “To the moon and back.” I found both the father and the son utterly and sadly believable: a divorced father, yearning for centrality in his son’s life; a willful, indulged six-year- old boy, exercising his power over his father by insisting on fulfillment of his whims; and a situation that teeters between the twin paternal horrors of arrest or embarrassment in front of his son, on the one hand, and the son’s potential tantrum or his losing even more trust in his father. Did I find the father or Lidor sympathetic? Not at all. Did I find them believable? Absolutely. Never having read Etgar Keret previously, I was surprised that “To the moon and back” had been translated, so my hat’s off to Sondra Silverston, who did a fine and convincing translation. Ah, the occasional joys of being contrary.

  10. Rosalind October 1, 2016 at 9:09 am

    I thought this story was about our presidential candidate. Trump. Maybe that is why the NYer chose it!

  11. Eric October 1, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Rosalind: who do you believe is supposed to represent Trump, the father or the son?

  12. pauldepstein October 1, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    I couldn’t disagree more with all the negative comment. I thought it was a fine story, and the father’s desire to satisfy his son’s wishes, no matter how unreasonable, was both poignant and humorous. Furthermore, the reading experience was enjoyable as the tension built over this clearly insane request.
    Did the story have a weakness? Yes, the “symbolic” ending seemed contrived and obtrusive — a lot of New Yorker stories have that problem. Unlike many New Yorker pieces, the ending is complete even if the symbolism is forced and nobody needs to fret over whether it might be a novel excerpt. BTW, I loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s story too, but didn’t have the time or inclination to defend it. Reading the Sittenfeld was an odd experience. I was thinking intermittently “Wow, the author’s a man who really writes convincingly from the female point of view” because I thought of “Curtis” as a man’s name. I was of course disillusioned later, but it didn’t stop me loving that story.

  13. Rosalind October 1, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    Eric, good question. Both characters have similar traits with the son’s reaching a higher destructive level. Dealers choice for the Joker or the Ace of Spades..

  14. Sean H October 7, 2016 at 5:23 am

    Not much here. I’m fine with unlikable central characters but simply presenting a warts-and-all portrayal of an angry and frustrated individual does not make for much of a story. Nor is there any sustained context or development, so you can’t call it a character study. If you have to read the author interview or grasp at Trump-shaped straws to make it a social commentary, that’s no sign of worthwhile literature either. This one founders and grasps for purpose.
    The writing is brisk and purposeful,it’s clear that Keret knows his character and that character’s worldview and is intent on presenting it on the page; the scenario is realistically rendered as well, and the supporting characters behave in a believable manner, but this is one of those stories where somebody needed to ask the author: “So what?” There’s just not much of consequence here. At best it’s a slice of life about vitriolic co-dependence and desperation, but one without much resonance or artfulness beyond a simple representation.

  15. Trevor Berrett October 10, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I think Sean says it well when he says “simply presenting a warts-and-all portrayal of an angry and frustrated individual does not make for much of a story.” It’s very much a presentation rather than an exploration.

  16. Greg October 10, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Roger, Eric and Sean – All three of you have helped me understand why this story is lacking so much. Thank you for commenting, even though the piece was weak!

  17. Ken October 16, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    I actually didn’t mind this story. Granted, it’s not significant or major or something I’ll likely remember in a week but I wrote long ago on this site that when a story is very short I don’t have such high expectations or demands. I thought Keret basically delivered a literary version of the kind of anecdote you tell a friend over coffee when you need to vent your frustration. He describes the situation where a divorced parent resorts to money and bribery as a weapon to win back a child’s affection. Certainly this is not new ground or any sort of revelation, but the conversational form and readability made this an amusing little piece, briefly read, soon forgotten, perhaps granted more attention in my mind by the negative responses (most of which I basically agreed with) posted above.

  18. Greg October 19, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks Ken for your raw honesty.

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