Books

Loyal to Both, Belonging to Neither: On Shelly Oria’s New York 1, Tel Aviv 0

The first thing you notice about the work of Shelly Oria is her voice: how it crackles, the syntax, startling in a way that’s almost reminiscent of Etgar Keret – and yet, Keret’s voice I’ve only read in translation, which makes Oria’s even more striking. Her original English shimmers with the hint of another tongue in both rhythm and diction, all of which lends refreshing wit to her prose. I cannot say enough about her language, how crisp and rich it is, rife with offhand wisdom, at once playful and possessed with an honesty that makes you think, pen giddy from highlighting lines that capture the absurdity of The American Way: “When there’s no miscalculation involved, too much food is simply called supper.”

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG Originals) is a story collection about displacement, about impersonating, trying on identity, but never quite fitting in – socially, culturally, within one’s own skin. Oria’s characters are often from two countries, loyal to both, belonging to neither. It is a feeling she knows intimately (born in Los Angeles and raised in Israel), and is masterfully conveyed throughout, with the title story, which opens the collection, most emblematic of this push/pull of nationality.

“New York, 1, Tel Aviv, 0” focuses on a restless love triangle between an American named Zoë and two Israelis. The characters straddle worlds without fully inhabiting either, a situation ripe for humor and truth. Zoë can’t commit to anyone for more than five minutes, and the Israelis feel like outsiders – in the relationship and in the world. Ron, the boyfriend, says, “I’ve always felt Israeli in America, but if I went back today I’m sure I’d be the American in Israel.” This constant longing can be felt at the level of language. The narrator admits, “I miss Hebrew sometimes; other times I try to imagine how the words might sound if I didn’t understand their meaning, and I wish that I could listen to them from the outside and choose whether or not to get back in.”

Contradictions are everywhere. Oria’s timing is so precise that not only do these have a comedic effect; they often seesaw on a single line, embodying the central paradoxes of the characters. As in: “He was new and familiar.”

And: “Zoe never has cigarettes because she’s quit smoking, so she always has to bum from people who haven’t quite smoking yet.”

And: “There is a sense of comfort that you get when someone else is in charge of your safety.”

And: “Sometimes he says unkind things but you can still see kindness underneath them.”

Oria’s magic lies in the quirky yet profound accuracy of her sentences. One of the most poignant passages in the book can be found in the title story:

This is my metaphor for how people in Israel treat suicide bombings and bombings in general: the flu. Some bombings are like a mild flu that doesn’t even make you skip work… Others are worse, the kind of flu that makes you vow you will from now on be grateful for your health every hour of every day.

Which might sound flip if it weren’t so true.

Her characters struggle to communicate, even within their native language. In “The Disneyland of Albany,” an Israeli artist named Avner departs for New York, leaving his estranged wife and daughter in Tel Aviv. It is a long, full, fairly traditional story about identity and want and the many failures of connection, almost novelistic in tone, a story that showcases Oria’s range. Avner reflects, “They’d always been experts at not saying things to each other.” Upon arriving in New York, the misreading persists. When Avner’s agent, Gillian, attempts to speak with him in her basic Hebrew, “he found it sexy, her American accent rounding the rough edges, making the throaty sound of Hebrew softer, more accepting.” He confuses this gesture as intimacy, as if there were more to their client-agent relationship, a fantasy whose reality dawns on him when he calls her from his Albany hotel room in the middle of the night and she can’t wait to get off the phone. “Had he imagined this whole time that Gillian was… open to some other connection between them?

It soon becomes clear that Avner’s appeal to both his agent and potential buyer is his otherness, his exoticism. In the States, people like Abe Chapman of Albany are interested only in Avner’s Israeli paintings, as if his art can stand in for Abe’s right-wing brand of American Zionism. In an act of condescension, Abe tests out his own lousy language skills on Maya, Avner’s young daughter, but his grammar is so poor Maya can’t help but laugh, exposing him as the buffoon he is.

In fact, it is Maya who rises above the rest as the voice of reason and brutal truth. Like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” she is too young for secrets and games; she says it how she sees it – whether that’s politics, capitalism, or her mother’s new boyfriend. At one point she insists, “I am grown up,” and sure enough, she proves to be the only one in the story who is. Perhaps more than anything, “The Disneyland of Albany” maps Avner’s attempt to connect with his daughter, whom he has all but abandoned back home. Their interactions are awkward and haltingly desperate. They don’t know each other anymore. Ultimately, it’s not words – in Hebrew or in English – that bring them together. Touch becomes that bridge. At the very end of the story, “[Avner] felt a tickle in his left palm. It took him a few seconds to realize it was Maya’s hand trying to make its way into his. He opened his palm, took his daughter’s hand. Soon, they’d arrive.”

Elsewhere, Oria is more unconventional in structure. She rejects linear narrative, she plays with collage. “Documentation,” a relationship told through numbered kisses, is cleverly conceived but also a wonderfully removed way of unearthing the painful, soured heart of a relationship. “That’s the thing about kisses, isn’t it? You can never leave anything out.”

For all the naked honesty revealed in a kiss, there is a persistent detachment, an aloofness to the characters that perhaps stems from their never quite assimilating, but which also seems consistent with the current emotional climate in the age of Girls and the post-wounded woman, where whatever the hurt is, wherever the heartache lies, the pain cannot be realized with any earnestness lest it skew melodramatic. Instead the searching is played out with a casual coolness, a hip multiplicity of partners, a hungry if not insatiable, pluralistic sexuality. Oria sums it up, “A good time to talk about the sex: we had a lot of it, except at the end, and it was always good, except when it wasn’t.”

Forget about other people; these characters are also disconnected from themselves. In “This Way I Don’t Have to Be,” an Israeli narrator with a penchant for sex with strangers explains the effect she has on these often settled, family men: “In that moment their entire lives turn to air… What’s left is something from years ago, an idea of the men they wanted to be, long abandoned.” Nadine, the sex worker in “Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity,” fulfills a similar role for her clients. Throughout, there is a palpable ache, a central missing to so many of Oria’s characters, as they come up against this disconnect between who they are and who others think they are, who they once were and who they want to be, as they lend performance to the idea that “even the worst lie turns real if you repeat it enough.”

Taken on its own terms, read in isolation, practically every story is a standout. Oria’s ear is one of her many gifts; another is her energizing approach to narrative. She rejects stale, stodgy modes of storytelling in “The Beginning of a Plan,” which leaps around in time, and “My Wife in Converse,” which effectively maps the dissolution of a lesbian marriage through short, compressed sections. I almost wish I had first encountered her stories (many of which first appeared in places like The Paris Review, Five Chapters, and McSweeney’s) in separate journals.

Overall, the collection displays a fine balance, with three major hits: the title story kicking things off, the hefty “Disneyland of Albany” in the middle, and “Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity” closing it out with a synthesis of Oria’s themes. Love, miscommunication, artful packaging: It’s all here in the devastating interactions between Nadine, whose “skin feels too tight on her bones, like someone gave her the wrong size,” and Mia, an Israeli-born photographer who’s taken an interest in her as a subject for an upcoming exhibit. As Nadine develops feelings, “Everything/nothing is how she thinks of it she has no words not even sound…” Mia focuses on the work, only later realizing “I’m always reaching for something and not quite getting there.” This moving final story is a logical counterpoint to “My Wife in Converse,” which precedes it. Earlier in the book, “Wait” – a piece of direct address narrated by a divorcee to her ex about his imaginary future girlfriend – leads beautifully into “Kiss.”

But the thing about a collection is the individual stories don’t exist in a vacuum, but play off each other through placement and juxtaposition like a record. While you want all the songs to make sense and cohere and riff on certain ideas, there is a risk of hitting the same note. Songs that sound too much alike can cancel each other out. Unfortunately, a couple of the stories do step on each another. Although it’s only a few pages, the rather redundant “Stand Still” dulls some of the power and pop that Oria has achieved elsewhere.

But this is a tiny quibble in an otherwise remarkably exciting debut. Oria’s voice is whip-smart, fresh and uniquely hers. I can’t wait to read what she does next.

Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection Doll Palace. Her fiction has appeared in The Good Men Project, Wigleaf, Slice, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere. She's written reviews for GQ, Publishers Weekly, and PANK. A 2012 NYFA Fiction Fellow, she co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in the East Village. Follow her @saralippmann.