Shelly Oria’s debut short story collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, is simultaneously delicate and shattering. The book derives its title from a story of the same name, in which an Israeli expat from in New York obsessively tallies the merits of the two cities that she has called home. “It’s an ongoing competition,” she says, “But I forget to keep track, so I have to keep counting all over again.”
Many stories in Oria’s collection are rooted in two cities on opposite sides of the globe, their central characters Israelis who have made their way to the United States. But New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 is more textured than a simple exploration of migration and cultural difference. Quietly and without ceremony, Oria’s narratives veer into worlds that are unidentifiable and bizarre. In ‘The Beginning of a Plan,’ a young woman flees Israel to America to escape criminal prosecution, and discovers that she can quite literally freeze time. In ‘Victor, Changed Man,’ a couple reunites and promptly separates against the backdrop of an anonymous city that has been overtaken by a dense, unyielding fog. Often, the book’s fantastical narratives border on the grotesque. Oria writes of a North American town that traffics in human organs and blood, of another dominated by a band of vengeful, violent women. “We hold our men by their balls,” the nameless protagonist says. “And we squeeze.”
Even in the stories situated in identifiable locations, there is something disarming about the characters, who speak and think in jarring declaratives. “I always look them in the eye throughout, so as not to miss my moment,” says the protagonist of ‘This Way I Don’t Have to Be,’ explaining her addiction to sleeping with married men. “In that moment, their lives turn to air.” But beneath the cryptic authority of statements like these lies confusion and chaos. The lives of Oria’s characters are steeped in loneliness, unrequited love, and confounding lust. They subsist in fluid, often queer, sexual relationships that prove agonizing. Booney, the central character of a story called ‘The Thing About Sophia,’ develops feelings for her female roommate, and is invited into her bed, but not into her heart. In the titular ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0,’ an Israeli immigrant moves in with a former IDF soldier and falls desperately for his girlfriend, a woman who cannot be tamed.
Oria author was born in Los Angeles, but raised in Israel, and she taught herself to write fiction in English when she was an adult. If she is at any disadvantage when it comes to proficiency in the language, it does not show. Her sentences are piercing, her tone cool and assured. She is admirably bold in her storytelling, weaving her short narratives with ribbons of the strange and the surreal.
Every now and then, however, Oria overreaches in her attempts at originality. ‘Fully Zipped,’ which chronicles a series of exchanges between a customer and a salesperson in the fitting room of a clothing store, relies more on concept than on characters, and fizzles away without leaving much of an impression. ‘Documentation’ explores the unravelling of a relationship through a catalogue of kisses—a narrative technique that feels gimmicky and stale.
Some of the most striking stories in New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 are, in fact, the ones rendered in simple linear narratives. ‘The Disneyland of Albany,’ the strongest story in the collection and the most overtly political, follows an Israeli artist named Avner, who leaves his young daughter Maya in Tel Aviv when he moves to New York to further his art career. During one of Maya’s visits to the States, Avner travels to Albany to meet a wealthy Jewish patron, who subtly attempts to bully Avner into infusing his work with Zionist symbolism. At one point, Maya becomes agitated when she learns that a community was displaced so Nelson Rockefeller could build Albany’s Empire State Plaza. “Did they use tanks?” she asks, a reference to the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes.
If the circumstances of Oria’s more ethereal narratives are unnerving and strange, so is this story of a little girl who carries the trauma of her country’s wars. In New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, devastating realities collide with haunting landscapes of the surreal, until it cannot be said where one ends and the other begins.