November 2014

Beth Mellow

fiction

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0: Stories by Shelly Oria

From romantic comedies to Zales commercials featuring besotted couples, mass media tends to portray love as the connecting force that overcomes all. In her debut book of short stories, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, author Shelly Oria counters that notion by illustrating that love, in fact, can be very isolating.

The sophisticated collection of longer form and flash fiction takes readers inside the relationships and aspirations of a motley group of fascinating characters living in different places, whether it is New York City, Israel, or other-worldly locations. In her examination of disparate situations, Oria successfully conveys that relationships are often complex no matter what shape they take.

The introductory piece in the book, eponymously titled, explores the dynamics of competition and trust between three young adults who have recently celebrated the first anniversary of their three-way relationship. Oria, in her economic yet illustrative writing style, tells a universal story of romantic insecurity through her narrator Pie, who worries that her partners love her a bit less than they love each other. Meanwhile, in a later story, "None the Wiser," an almost-octogenarian named Yolanda shares her not-quite-bitter account of losing a potential suitor to a woman she believes is of lesser character than herself. In this story, Oria is expert at creating spaces in the text for readers to infer the emotions that Yolanda is experiencing -- jealousy, loss, and erosion of hope. Oria is also a wiz at illustrating that, in certain ways, we all have so much in common even if we are so different from each other.

The themes of love, loneliness, and longing nicely chain the pieces together, stories that often focus on lovelorn characters that manipulate their own behaviors and actions to gain acceptance by dominant partners. In the science fiction story, "The Beginning of a Plan," one woman has the ability to stop time and ultimately leverages this power at the behest of a scheming boyfriend, despite the fact that he is only with her because of this supernatural skill. In "The Thing About Sophia," the narrator ultimately builds her social life and work schedule around the whims of the lovely yet entitled and inscrutable title character. Oria treads on very honest emotional territory, demonstrating how even the strongest and most determined men and women can still be tempted to follow a path that leads them to self-subjugation.

As much as the collection is about love, it is also about war, and Oria is highly skilled in merging the themes together to create nuance in many of the stories. Oria is from Israel, where military service is a way of life, and terroristic threat often lurks in the shadows. It is interesting to see how this plays out in her writing. "Maybe a Different Time" is set in an alternate world that is war torn, and where blood and body parts are a commodity. Struck by a sudden wave of altruism, the narrator starts donating all of his body parts to people in need -- his arm, his skin, a kidney. However, when he is asked by a man to donate his penis, he sorrowfully writes back to him:

I cannot help you, for if I help you it will be the end of me. I would never again be able to love another body, never be able to conceive a son, and if ever I wanted to fight for something I believed in, no war -- neither the one we're in, nor any future one -- would take me.

While Oria's collection is thoughtful, and succeeds in many ways, some of her briefer pieces in the book fall short. "Fully Zipped" and "Wait," which each span only a few pages in the book, feel more like creative writing exercises -- albeit well done ones -- than completed works. Nevertheless, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 is an ambitious and highly engaging collection that explores what it is like to be in love, as well as alone, together with the rest of mankind. And as dour as this sounds, there are some notes of hope in this, as one of Oria's characters eloquently puts it, "maybe... I can go to a place where I can wait with the rest of the world by the radiator, feeling the chill of icy wind every time the door opens, because maybe that's what life is about: waiting your turn."

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0: Stories by Shelly Oria
FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374534578
240 pages