Todd by Etgar Keret
A story about being forced to write a love story
EDITOR’S NOTE by Benjamin Samuel
If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve heard this before: “Oh, you’re a writer? I’d love to write a novel, if only I had the time.” It’s a frustrating and all-too-common misunderstanding that reduces the craft of writing to a simple exercise in typing — anyone can produce sound from a piano, but being a true musician takes talent, practice, and a certain kind of madness. It’s the difference between simplicity and elegance, laziness and grace. And it is the masters of the craft, writers who make the impossibility of fiction seem effortless, writers like Etgar Keret, who are to blame for this misconception.
Do not let Etgar Keret deceive you. The Israeli writer who’s worked in film, illustration, animation, and radio, is a storyteller in all senses of the word. Like a conman, he’ll promise you a simple story and then the next thing you know your emotional reserves have been completely emptied. It’s a literary bait and switch, and he’ll get you every time.
Here, in “Todd,” a story that also challenges the boundaries between literature and reality, Etgar directly engages with the wonderful deception of fiction itself. The titular friend asks the narrator, who resembles Etgar — an Israeli short story writer who frequently appears on NPR — to write a story that’ll help him get girls into bed. The narrator must then explain that writing doesn’t work that way: “A story isn’t a magic spell or hypnotherapy,” the narrator claims, and yet that is exactly what happens here. Etgar knows that fiction has the power to captivate you, to entrance you, to alter your perception of reality. Todd, the lonesome character in this story, isn’t asking for “metaphors and insights and all that” but wants a simple little story that’ll change his life. Just a bit of practical magic.
To convince a reader that a fictional world has bearing on the real world is both a miracle and a marvelous swindle. Like many of his stories, “Todd” offers us a simple concept and, as if by sorcery (or a postmodern sleight of hand), reveals an entire world of complexity. The story of course isn’t just about helping a friend get laid. It’s about the meaning of things — stories, relationships, and whatever “masculinity” is these days. Read it and find out for yourself, but just keep an eye on your wallet. And if anyone has spoken to Todd, please tell him to call me.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
Todd by Etgar Keret
MY FRIEND TODD wants me to write him a story that will help him get girls into bed.
“You’ve already written stories that make girls cry,” he says. “And ones that make them laugh. So now write one that’ll make them jump into bed with me.”
I try to explain to him that it doesn’t work that way. True, there are some girls who cry when they read my stories, and there are some guys who —
“Forget guys,” Todd interrupts. “Guys don’t do it for me. I’m telling you this up front, so you won’t write a story that’ll get anyone who reads it into my bed, just girls. I’m telling you this up front to avoid unpleasantness.”
So I explain to him again, in my patient tone, that it doesn’t work that way. A story isn’t a magic spell or hypnotherapy; a story is just a way to share something you feel with other people, something intimate, sometimes even embarrassing, that —
“Great,” Todd interrupts again, “so let’s share something embarrassing with your readers that’ll make the girls jump into bed with me.” He doesn’t listen, that Todd. He never listens, at least not to me.
I met Todd at a reading he organized in Denver. When he talked about the stories he loved that evening, he became so excited that he began to stammer. He has a lot of passion, that Todd, and a lot of energy, and it’s obvious that he doesn’t really know where to channel it all. We didn’t get to talk a lot, but I saw right away that he was a smart person and a mentsch. Someone you could depend on. Todd is the kind of person you want beside you in a burning house or on a sinking ship. The kind of guy you know won’t jump into a lifeboat and leave you behind.
But at the moment, we’re not in a burning house or on a sinking ship, we’re just drinking organic, soymilk lattés in a funky, natural café in Williamsburg. And that makes me a little sad. Because if there were something burning or sinking in the area, I could remind myself why I like him, but when Todd starts hammering away at me to write him a story, he’s hard to stomach.
“Title the story, ‘Todd the Man’,” he tells me. “Or even just, ‘Todd.’ You know what? Just ‘Todd’ is better. That way, girls who read it are less likely to figure out where it’s heading, and then, at the end, when it comes — bam! They won’t know what hit them. All of a sudden, they’ll look at me differently. All of a sudden, they’ll feel their pulse start to pound in their temples, and they’ll swallow their saliva and say, ‘Tell me, Todd, do you happen to live close by?’ or, ‘Stop, don’t look at me like that,’ but in a tone that actually says the opposite: ‘Please, please keep looking at me like that,’ and I’ll look at them and then it’ll happen, as if spontaneously, as if it has nothing to do with the story you wrote. That’s it. That’s the kind of story I want you to write for me. Understand?”
And I say, “Todd, I haven’t seen you in a year. Tell me what’s happening with you, what’s new. Ask me how I’m doing, ask how my kid is.”
“Nothing’s happening with me,” he says impatiently, “and I don’t need to ask about the kid, I already know everything about him. I heard your interview on NPR a few days ago. All you did in that crappy interview was talk about him. How he said this and how he said that. The interviewer asks you about writing, about life in Israel, about the Iranian threat, and like a Rottweiler’s jaw, you’re locked onto quotes from your kid, as if he’s some kind of Zen genius.”
“He really is very smart,” I say defensively. “He has a unique angle on life. Different from us adults.”
“Good for him,” Todd hisses. “So, what do you say? Are you writing me the story or not?”
So I’m sitting at the faux-wood, plastic desk in the faux five-star, three-star hotel the Israeli Consulate has rented for me for two days, trying to write Todd his story. I struggle to find something in my life that’s full of the kind of emotion that will make girls jump into Todd’s bed. I don’t understand, by the way, what Todd’s problem is with finding girls himself. He’s a nice looking guy and pretty charming, the kind that knocks up a pretty waitress from a small town diner and then takes off. Maybe that’s his problem: he doesn’t project loyalty. To women, I mean. Romantically speaking. Because when it comes to burning houses or sinking ships, as I’ve already said, you can count on him all the way. So maybe that’s what I should write: a story that will make girls think that Todd will be loyal. That they’ll be able to rely on him. Or the opposite: a story that will make it clear to all the girls who read it that loyalty and dependability are overrated. That you have to go with your heart and not worry about the future. Go with your heart and find yourself pregnant after Todd is long gone, organizing a poetry reading on Mars, sponsored by NASA. And on a live broadcast, five years later, when he dedicates the event to you and Sylvia Plath, you can point to the screen in your living room and say, “You see that man in the space suit, Todd Junior? He’s your Dad.”
Maybe I should write a story about that. About a woman who meets someone like Todd, and he’s charming and in favor of eternal, free love and all the other bullshit that men who want to fuck the whole world believe. And he gives her a passionate explanation of evolution, of how women are monogamous because they want a male to protect their offspring, and how men are polygamous because they want to impregnate as many women as possible, and how there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s nature, and it’s stronger than any conservative presidential candidate or Cosmopolitan article called, “How to hold on to your husband.”
“You have to live in the moment,” the guy in the story will say, then he’ll sleep with her and break her heart. He’ll never act like some shit she can easily drop. He’ll act like Todd. Which means that even while he fucks up her life, he’ll still be kind and nice and exhaustingly intense, and — yes — poignant too. And that’ll make the whole business of breaking it off with him even harder. But in the end, when it happens, she’ll realize that it was still worth it. And that’s the tricky part: the “it-was-still-worth-it” part. Because I can connect to the rest of the scenario like a smartphone to wireless internet at Starbucks, but the “it was still worth it” is more complicated. What could the girl in the story get out of that whole hit-and-run accident with Todd but another sad dent on the bumper of her soul?
“When she woke up in bed, he was already gone,” Todd reads aloud from the page, “but his smell lingered. The smell of a child’s tears when he throws a tantrum in a toy store…”
He stops suddenly and looks at me in disappointment. “What is this shit?” he asks. “My sweat doesn’t smell. Fuck, I don’t even sweat. I bought a special deodorant that’s active 24 hours a day, and I don’t just spread it on my armpits, but all over my body, and on my hands too, at least twice a day. And the drooling kid… that’s one hell of a turnoff, man. A girl who reads a story like this — there’s no way she’ll go with me.”
“Read it to the end,” I tell him. “It’s a good story. When I finished writing it, I cried.”
“Good for you,” Todd said, “Double good for you. You know the last time I cried? When I fell off my mountain bike and split open my head and needed twenty stitches. That’s pain too, and I didn’t have medical insurance either, so while they were sewing me up, I couldn’t even yell and feel sorry for myself like everyone else because I had to think about where I’d get the money. That was the last time I cried. And the fact that you cried, it’s touching, really, but it doesn’t help solve my girl problems.”
“All I’m trying to say is that it’s a good story,” I tell him, “and that I’m glad I wrote it.”
“No one asked you to write a good story,” Todd said, getting pissed. “I asked you to write a story that would help me. That would help your friend deal with a real problem. It’s like if I asked you to donate blood to save my life and instead you wrote a good story and cried when you read it at my funeral.”
“You’re not dead,” I say. “You’re not even dying.”
“Yes I am,” Todd screams, “I am. I am dying. I’m alone and for me, alone is like fucking dying. Don’t you see that? I don’t have a blabby kid in kindergarten whose clever remarks I can share with my beautiful wife. I don’t. And this story? I didn’t sleep all night. I just lay in bed and thought: it’s almost here, my friend from Israel is about to throw me a lifeline, and I won’t be alone anymore. And while I’m taking comfort in that cheering thought, you’re sitting and writing a beautiful story.”
There’s a short pause, at the end of which I tell Todd that I’m sorry. Short pauses bring that out in me. Todd nods and says that I shouldn’t sweat it. That he got a little too carried away himself. It’s totally his fault. He shouldn’t have asked me to do such a dumb thing to begin with, but he was desperate. “I forgot for a minute that you’re so tight-assed about writing that you need metaphors and insights and all that. In my imagination, it was much simpler, more fun. Not a masterpiece. Something light. Something that begins with ‘My friend Todd asked me to write him a story that’d help him get girls into bed’ and ends with some kind of cool postmodern trick. You know, pointless, but not ordinary pointless. Sexy pointless. Mysterious.”
“I can do that,” I tell him after another short pause. “I can write you one like that too.”