Seeking Control and Connection

Shelly Oria
New York 1, Tel Aviv 0
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Shelly Oria’s debut collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, gives us 18 stories that follow characters negotiating the tricky natures of their closest relationships, including lovers in a long-term three-way, an estranged father and daughter, a man and his only friends in town, and a woman addicted to married men and her therapist friend who tries to cure her. Most of Oria’s stories take place in a recognizable reality, but she doesn’t shy away from adding a touch of the fantastic to some of her settings, such as the North American town of “Maybe in a Different Time,” where it is possible to donate any number of organs (including one’s skin or heart), and still remain alive (if slightly changed emotionally from the experience).

Dramatic events happen in the worlds around Oria’s characters (young people begin their years in the Israeli army; missile alarms sound in Tel Aviv; the counting of time is literally stopped); however, what matters most to the men and women who populate these stories is not these outside events, but how their own small actions are perceived by the other humans in their intimate lives, and how the terms of their relationships are defined, person to person.

The collection opens, in the title story, with themes of language, home, and displacement. Oria, whose writing language of English is not her first language, explores the limitations and difficulties in making connections through spoken words. In “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0,” two members of a three-lover relationship are Israeli, and speaking Hebrew to one another signifies private territory—they are doing something together that their third partner, an American, cannot. While their Hebrew conversations provide a certain comfort to each other, a reminder of their shared geographic home, they also have the effect of creating walls within their full relationship: “Hebrew feels weird, like some secret code; Ron and I got used to speaking English between us because of Zoë, and gradually Hebrew started to feel like an intimate space we shouldn’t be sharing.”

Language and its limitations come back in the final story, “Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity,” where Nadine, a professional prostitute, claims that she understands “moans better than she understands words” because “with sound you get something that language can’t hide. With sound, you get the feeling underneath the words.”

Oria’s characters don’t always have the correct words to say to one another, but they seem always to be trying to reach the magic words that will make everything okay. A common motif in the stories is this: characters calculating what they say to one another to inflict the least amount of trauma to their relationships, to keep things going as they are. There is a fear of disrupting the status quo, a desire to keep everything the same, to control the uncontrollable—humans and relationships will change, and Oria’s characters fight those inevitable changes, even though they almost always fail to exert real power on other people’s actions and their feelings about those actions.

Many of Oria’s stories deftly explore the differences in the reality of who we are at our core as opposed to the persona we present to others. Most of her characters seem aware of this divide in themselves, consciously making decisions to say the words that they believe will elicit the desired responses from (most often) their romantic partners, but it is only the first-person narrator in “Wait,” addressing a specific you (her ex-lover), who admits to the other that she is being dishonest in her actions. She is addressing an ex who will inevitably move on, as exes often do, while trying to gain control of the situation by stating her acceptance of it and simultaneously inserting herself into his new life. She theorizes about her ex’s future lover, giving him advice about how to behave, how to make his new relationship strong and not make the same mistakes he made with her:

You don’t know who I’m talking about, but she will be blond. A year from now, you’ll be having an argument in a restaurant uptown. It will be about green olives—you keep forgetting she’s allergic—but it will be about fear. Her fear of losing you, her fear of me.

In appearance (or at least in how she hopes to be perceived), the unnamed narrator of this story is trying to be a friend to her ex, going through the motions perhaps in an attempt to convince herself that this is possible, finally admitting, “I’ll pretend that this is a conversation we can have.”

We again see a character going through the motions, actions contradicting feelings, in “Documentation,” a story that details the notable kisses in a long relationship that is reaching its end. The (again unnamed and also non-gendered) narrator knows that the relationship is doomed, but catalogs these kisses in an attempt to place meaning on a situation in which s/he is losing control:

All winter long I wait for you to show up with empty boxes, a duffel bag, something that can host your belongings as they depart from shelves and drawers. I say nothing about it, and clean the apartment twice every day because I don’t know how to passively wait for things to get worse. When I cry one evening for no reason, you kiss my tears, and I wonder whether or not it counts, whether or not it should be documented.

The one character in Oria’s collection who does have a real ability to control life around her, a character named Bambi who has the power to stop time (which she does early in the story “The Beginning of a Plan” to escape from prison), wants badly never to use her power again, as the stopping of time makes her anxious. A lover convinces her later in life to stop time once again, so that he can capitalize financially on the “time-stop,” but all Bambi wants is for life to run its natural course, to have a baby, to see unpredictability and change once more. The one who truly has control is the one who shuns it.

A review of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 would not be complete without a mention of Oria’s choices for her narrative points of view. Almost every story is told in first-person (two have a close third point-of-view narrator and one a second-person point of view), with narrators who spend a great deal of time struggling over their internal thoughts versus external actions. With these first-person narrators so aware that they are always modifying their behavior to elicit certain responses from those they are closest to, it is not difficult to start wondering what internal games the other characters in these stories, the ones whose minds we are not inside, might be playing.

Interesting, then, that “Stand Still,” one of the three stories told in a first-plural point of view, has a “we” narrator that confuses the thoughts of the two people in that “we” as the thoughts of one person—that is, to the narrator, it does not matter if the “truth” of a memory stemmed from one person or the other, as the “we” owns all memories jointly:

After a while, one of us—and it truly doesn’t matter who—had a crisis in the family. We have different memories of what the crisis was—one of us believes a beloved aunt fell ill, while the other remembers it clearly as a sibling’s drug problem. What is not in dispute is that solving the crisis involved travel and an extended stay, and that while one of us was packing, the other felt terrified, and thrilled.

What matters are not the details of the circumstances, but the behaviors that these circumstances caused, and their ultimate effect on the relationship of the “we.”

When Oria chooses to write from a (close) third-person point of view, as she does in “The Disneyland of Albany” and “Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity,” her characters have less of an idea what others need to hear from them, or at least they don’t fool themselves into thinking that they do know. Avner, in “The Disneyland of Albany,” is an estranged father who has left his wife and young daughter in Israel to pursue his career as an artist in New York City. In describing Avner’s attempts to understand his ex-wife, Oria writes, “He could never—not in all the years they lived together, not since—predict how she’d react to anything.” On a rare visit from his young daughter in New York, Avner is perplexed by her ability to understand him and their situation so much better than he can himself; he wonders, “Did all kids have this skill, this ability to get to the heart of the matter immediately and with few words?”

There is a sadness in Oria’s characters, who seem to be searching constantly for connection with others, never quite reaching something they can call steady and unshakable. But there is a hope in these stories, too, in that Oria’s women and men never stop trying to make those connections, despite their limitations.

Contributor

Catherine LaSota

CATHERINE LASOTA is the founder, curator, and host of the LIC Reading Series in Long Island City, Queens. Her essays and interviews appear in Vice, Electric Literature, Catapult, the One Story blog, and the Brooklyn Rail. Follow her on Twitter @catherinelasota

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