REVIEW: New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 by Shelly Oria
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Shelly Oria’s debut comes to us at, perhaps, the perfect moment. New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, a well-written story collection about sex, war, Israel, and Zionism seems today especially current, but — paradoxically — the weight of these topics lies precisely in that their currency goes back seventy years (and beyond). Shelly Oria’s book investigates the past, present, and future of these themes via a series of probing, inventive fictions, the best of which delight in both their language and construction, at once self-consciously literary creations and, at the same time, heartfelt examinations of character and loss.
Oria’s collection is a mix of longer, more fleshed out stories and shorter pieces that — in their intentional elusiveness — often have more in common with narrative prose poems than flash fiction. In just four blink-and-you’ll-miss-them pages, Oria gives ethereal suspense to the mundane — a cookbook release party in “That Night” (“That night, we counted countless things — the advantages of dairy, the siblings we never had”); and in the just-as short “We, The Women,” Oria pulls an about-face and journeys her reader to a fantasyland Upstate New York retreat for the sexy, challenged, challenging women of “the great American city” (“Our mentors, they tell us of a world where women scratch tomatoes with their nails and the fruit doesn’t bleed.”). If the short story is an exercise in the art of implication — as Tobias Wolff says it is — Oria stakes her claim as one of our most exciting new craftspersons, launching sentence-bombs into the air and leaving it for her readers to parse out where and how far the shrapnel aims and cuts.
She’s adept in her longer pieces, too. In the title story — centered on a narrator in a polyamorous love affair — the writer is unafraid of language that in lesser hands might seem too direct: “We talked about Identity,” narrates the speaker (the winking capital letter Oria’s, not mine); and, later, “This is my metaphor for how people in Israel treat suicide bombings and bombings in general: the flu.” Oria dramatizes extreme Zionist tension in “The Disneyland of Albany,” and in “None the Wiser” creates with her narrator a pitch-perfect mimic of an old Jewish matriarch, complete with paragraph-ending aphorisms (“A man’s nature is not something you can change. Women who think otherwise end up divorced.”); but — as in the shorter pieces — she doesn’t shy away from fantasy, either, most notably in “Maybe in a Different Time,” a hilariously tragic piece about a man who gains fame for nonchalantly donating his own body parts. (Spoiler alert: at the end he decides to hang onto his penis.)
All of which is to say that, in this collection, Oria proves herself a master of double-, triple-, and quadruple-meaning, a producer of sentences as beautiful and jarring out of context as they are inside. “The fire eats away at my fantasies,” says one of her narrators, “and the smoke that it feeds back to the air feels sober” — a typical sentence typical of Oria in that it arrests the reader even with no set-up. It’s easy to muster enthusiasm for a collection so provocatively titled; the trick is sticking the landing, which Oria does in spades. Filled with stories and language at odds with the boring trappings of so much of today’s literary fiction, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 commands the attention necessary to acclimate the reader to its prose; to borrow from Oria’s narrator, “To conquer a language that’s not your own, you need to prioritize reading over sleeping.” Oria makes this an easy task.
by Shelly Oria