A thief, an idiot and a gambler. A clown, a whore and a murderer. And that’s only a few of the righteous Jews charged with saving the world. At least, according to fiction writer Jonathon Keats.
In his new collection of short stories, “The Book of the Unknown,” Keats portrays the first third of the legendary Lamed-Vav, the 36 anonymous Jewish souls alive at any given time who, as he puts it, “justify humanity in the mind of God.”
So they’re the good guys, right? Yes, but, Keats asks, why couldn’t a liar or a cheat be among the righteous?
“It was a way of challenging myself,” says Keats, who will be speaking about his book 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “Could there be good in characters as unlikely as these? The only certainty I have is that certainty is overrated. I’m always attempting to subvert or overturn certainties because I find them suspect.”
Keats, 37, sets the stories in fairyland realms in some unspecified Jewish past, complete with castles, dungeons and dybbuks. He retains the characters’ anonymity by calling them Hebrew letter names such as Aleph, Bet and Gimmel. He even throws in jarringly modern references here and there (in one scene, the king dines on sushi).
“I’ve always enjoyed that older way of telling a story,” he says. “Mythology. Folklore. I’ve been reading a lot of Jewish folklore through the ages.”
Though he’s published previous novels and served as a journalist and art critic for prominent periodicals, Keats may be best known locally as a conceptual artist. His installations at the Judah L. Magnes Museum –– including the recently wrapped “Atheon” and his “Revisions” from 2006 (which turned extraterrestrial radio impulse into visual art) –– drew on science and technology for inspiration.
Not exactly “once upon a time” stuff.
“To me, all of it is of a piece,” he adds, “in that everything I do is a form of storytelling. My art projects are as much fables as these [stories] are, only a little less literally so. I hope to encourage people to look back on their own world with a little less familiarity, to find surprises in the everyday and question everything that might be taken for granted.”
Framing his stories with Jewish legend came naturally to Keats. Born in New York, he moved to the Bay Area as a child. He and his family attended Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, where he was bar mitzvahed, and he later attended Amherst
College in Mass-achusetts. He returned to San Francisco to embark on a career as an artist and writer.
As for the Lamed-Vav, he saw the talmudic legend as an ideal structure for stories, though the notion of making them a ragtag collection of misfits appealed to his rebel streak.
Unfortunately, 36 turned out to be a really big number. “They all ended up being about the length of a story you might tell at bedtime,” he says. “Once that length had been established, I realized 36 would take forever, and the book would be so thick, nobody would carry it.”
So he trimmed them down to an even dozen. And even though he poked tradition in the eye with his anti-hero Lamed-Vavniks, he also tried to uphold a vanishing literary standard.
“My goal, which is impossible, is ‘do the polar opposite of what modernistic fiction seeks to do,’ where nothing relates to anything else,” Keats says. “The whole modernist project says life is not like a story, no beginning, middle and end to the events we encounter in life. So we need to find a manner of writing more like life as it is lived.”
With 12 down, Keats still has 24 of the Lamed-Vavniks to go, though he isn’t sure about a sequel. But if he does take another stab at it, his next characters would probably be right at home in a police line-up.
“They stand as a check against self-righteousness, against all assumption and presumptions of what is good and just and right,” he says of the Lamed-Vav. “We should never be so sure.”
Jonathon Keats will be speaking 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $10-$12. Information: (415) 292-1200 or online at jccsf.org.
“The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six” by Jonathon Keats ($13, Random House, 240 pages)