Frankie Barnet on Shelly Oria: NEW YORK 1 TEL AVIV 0

41LDkuBJiHLNEW YORK 1 TEL AVIV 0, Shelly Oria. Bond Street Books (2014)

 

“I think, who is this person? That me who isn’t Israeli and isn’t American, isn’t gay and isn’t straight— who is she?” (26).

 

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, Shelly Oria’s debut collection of short stories, is a book about intersections of identity. Her characters are weaving through the loaded markers of national and sexual identity, and though their struggles can be gut wrenching, each story is grounded in the clarity of Oria’s prose.

Regardless of how overt the questions New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 is asking may be, as seen perhaps in the above line excerpted from the collection’s titular offering, the answers she provides are original, nuanced and refreshing, with a focus that is always on the liminal. Oria proves how pervasive both American and Israeli national identities can be, developed through elements like memories, language, and even subtle cultural practices like how the narrator in this story recalls

“in Israel, this is what you do when you enter a bar: a movie theatre, a mall: you open your bag. you let the security guard look through your personal belongings, until he decides you’re probably not carrying a bomb […] when i first moved to new york, i kept opening my purse every time i entered a building, before realizing that there was no security guard” (5).

Yet these markers are repeatedly proven insufficient to account for each character’s complexity. Avner in “The Disneyland of Albany” worries that his agent/romantic prospect, Gillian, can’t “see that he wasn’t that guy— the typical israeli macho”, just as Ron in “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0,” confesses, “I’ve always felt Israeli in America, but if i went back today I’m sure I’d be the American in Israel” (17).

The book develops a parallel argument in regards to the characters’ sexual identities, and just one example of this comes from Boon, the narrator in “The Thing About Sophia” who resists the label “lesbian” despite an increasingly passionate affair with her roommate. She describes, “before I met Sophia, I never thought of myself as a woman who could be with women this way, and maybe I’m not, maybe it’s only with Sophia. But my sense is, it’s kind of the thing that once you let it in, it is going to play itself out” (126).

Here, perhaps in the spirit of Boon’s reticence towards labels, is an appropriate place for a brief aside on the concept of “loadedness”, not only in the text but also in regards to the reactions it evokes. This is a book I was excited to read, a book I showed many of my friends, a book that was met many times with raised eyebrows and disinterested “hm”s.

“Yeah but it’s not like, Israeli Israeli,” I wanted to say, knowing that offering a statement whose meaning I did not totally understand to counter another statement whose meaning I also did not totally understand had little hope of leading anywhere enlightening.

“Is it pro Israeli?” I was asked outright by a friend.

“No,” I said, both quickly and defensively, which is not to imply that it is anti-Israeli, which is not to imply that it doesn’t present Israel as a beautiful and complex country with beautiful and complex citizens. I am getting the feeling that we are dealing with several various definitions of “Israeli”.

Of course what readers like my friend may be surprised to discover is that Oria’s characters are largely politically ambivalent, though the ignorant and comical American “active zionist”, in “The Disneyland of Albany”, as well as the anti-war narrator in “Tzfirah” are notable exceptions. The reactions I encountered interact with the book, play into the stereotypes that Oria is challenging, satirizing and denying.

Instead, these characters are more (outwardly) consumed by their love affairs. A whole story, “Documentation” is told through kisses, “Kisses #1-3: I kiss you for the first time, and it starts to rain” (47). “Kiss #17: I kiss you in a swimming pool” (48). Other pieces follow characters who embark upon affairs, go to poetry readings and follow strict brunch schedules. They shop for new clothes, the narrator in “Fully Zipped” divulging, “I want to feel like my life cannot go on without this dress” (149).

All the while, however, dark and violent undertones are lingering throughout the pieces. Oria often works to downplay these concerns, through descriptions such as “this my metaphor for how people in Israel treat suicide bombings in general: the flu” (23). Yet, no matter how characters relate to their Israeli identities, the past political implications of their nation are a steady undercurrent. In “Tzfirah” the narrator, who returns to Tel Aviv from New York to see her younger sister reluctantly enlist in the army, describes, “the Gulf War is something that your body remembers, and sirens are a part of that memory” (190). These stories demonstrate how the political is unavoidable, no matter how hard Oria’s characters try to escape it.

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 navigates a balance within its form as well. Oria’s prose varies from long, developed pieces such as “New York 1 Tel Aviv 0” or “The Disneyland of Albany” and shorter, concise experimentations. Pieces like the 2nd person “Wait” prove Oria’s mastery of pacing as the narrator describes a new relationship to her ex husband, when she halts the narrative:

but darling, wait, we held each other’s hands in hospital rooms. we laughed for three days once, we spoke complete sentences in unison. we loved through our twenties, and we turned 30 together, four years apart. and one warm september we invited two hundred and seventy people and promised all of them that we would love each other forever, and in return these people gave us money, and gifts. (45)

These moments of emotional intensity are grounded in the clarity of Oria’s prose. There is juxtaposition between romantic entanglements and political undertones, two seemingly opposite facets of these interrelated narratives that are beautifully rendered but never exploited. Just as identity is fluid, stories themselves seem to seep into each other; you get the feeling that perhaps Zoe is Sophia, Ron is the father at the eye doctor, and Dominique is “Salami”, the taste the narrator of “Documentation” senses in her lover’s mouth. “Salami has a name now,” she continues, “though I refuse to repeat it.” Even with this fluidity in mind, the stories remain dynamic and surprising from beginning to end.

 

IMG_3501Frankie Barnet is a Montreal based writer whose work has appeared in publications such as Joyland and Papirmasse. She is the author of the chapbook Something Disgusting Happening.

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