How to die laughing

The cranes that build the cranes and Kneller's happy campers


Build The Cranes
By Jeremy Dyson
Little, Brown, £12.99

Kneller’s Happy Campers
By Etgar Keret
Chatto & Windus, £6.99

Why do we cherish the creaky doors of mystery fiction, no matter how often they have spooked us before? This is one realm where we suspend our clamour for originality and simply savour that well-worn frisson. In Jeremy Dyson’s second collection, The Cranes That Build The Cranes, each of the nine stories unashamedly celebrates a different aspect of the genre.

‘Out of Bounds’ is a perfectly voiced boarding-school tale in which two friends bully their misfit peer into accompanying them down into the school cellar, late one night. When mysterious triangles appear scribbled on the cellar ceiling, the reader’s expectation that there is more here than the odd rat is confirmed.

Danny, the protagonist in ‘Michael’, is another teenager whose disaffection leads to a gruesome, supernatural discovery. Although the end breaks no new ground, this story’s opening with Danny mocked at school as the boy who writes his own Valentine’s cards, is heartbreaking. Such deft touches make Danny poignantly opaque and real.
The more exotic ‘Isle of the Wolf’ relates how Spotpal, a wealthy businessman and paranoid loner, encloses himself in the ultimate gated community, settling alone on an island in a booby-trapped villa. An attempted hijack by the evil Kastriot, “the power behind the power of nearly four hundred criminal gangs”, leads to 007-inflected, gory, high-octane combat, while the futuristic technology harnessed in Spotpal’s defence is worthy of Q himself.

Two of the stories stand out for their combination of loving adherence to convention and gentle comic originality. ‘Yani’s Day’ tells of the mutation of a lowly bookseller into an unstoppable killer, afflicting all who oppose him with instant cancer: he wants to be CEO of Waterstones and thus to rule the world. ‘Come April’ is about a compassionate prostitute whose world-famous blow jobs attract an aged Buddhist monk in search of “the highest plane of mind”.

Is there a fashion for suicide these days? Several of Dyson’s characters contemplate it, but Israeli writer Etgar Keret trumps the competition with a novella imagining the peculiar afterlife of suicides. In 26 short chapters, Kneller’s Happy Campers brings us Mordy and Uzi, two young men who “offed” themselves for different reasons but find common purpose in “life” afterwards, getting trolleyed in a bar called Stiff Drinks and chasing skirts in a land that weirdly resembles Israel, except for its population exclusively composed of suicides.

Mordy is still in love with Desiree, and when he learns that she has followed his lead into this world, he determines to track her down. He and Uzi head out in Uzi’s car on one of literature’s briefest road trips. Having picked up Leehee, a “Juliet” (female suicide whose appearance is undamaged by scars) with her own mission, they crash trying to avoid Kneller, first encountered fast asleep in the road.
This strangely cheerful suicide will eventually lead them to Desiree but, having already ended unhappily once, our two heroes are not destined for a much happier second ending.

Keret’s (and his translator, Miriam Schlesinger’s) handling of his slacker idiom is dazzling — rendering puns, colloquialisms and grave humour with panache, while darker themes constantly resurface and disturb, raising this short work far above the laid-back zombie pulp it is pretending to be.

Just one example of Keret’s acuity in this suggestive shadowland: Uzi claims his objection to Arabs “isn’t even politics. It’s something ethnic.”

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