New York 1, Tel Aviv 0
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Writing, perhaps more than any other art form, ought to be immune to the kind of binary thinking that labels the thoughts and actions of people as solely good or bad, black or white. And yet, far too often, characters are judged—by readers and critics—with a simplistic, rigid morality, something which seems better suited to the type of narrative more associated with the sloganeering in political campaigns than with a finely wrought work of literature. The whole idea that people and their actions even can be reduced to being right or wrong is a fantastically limiting way to view the world at large, of course, because by doing that we negate the complexities and nuance inherent to being human. And yet we do this all the time; we look for the good guy and the bad guy because it’s easy, and because there’s less of a challenge involved when we don’t have to think too hard about who we should root. Because reading—all art, really—is an escape; there’s a limit to how far most of us are willing to question ourselves and our popularly held opinions while on what amounts to a mental vacation.
These are all the things I was thinking anyway after finishing Shelly Oria’s excellent debut collection of short stories, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, a book whose very title dares you to continue to try and fit all the complications of the world into a reductive paradigm. New York and Israel, after all, are perhaps the two places on earth of which people are most likely to have some pretty strong opinions (to say the least), ones which tend to fall firmly in the realm of black or white, with little room for any gray. But what Oria—who grew up in Israel, but has lived in New York for many years now—excels at is exposing those gray, liminal spaces that exist between strongly held ideas of what is not just good or bad, but also what is normal or abnormal.
From within the confines of the short story—a form that can be limiting, but through which Oria’s words and ideas seem to soar and spiral off the page—Oria tackles issues like addiction, polyamory, parenthood, infidelity, and displacement, with each seemingly disparate story connected through characters who are all struggling with defining their own identities to the world at large and even to themselves. Oria’s characters live lives that might be portrayed as being extreme—even in 2014, polyamory and even bisexuality are frequently presented as punchlines rather than as part of many people’s reality—and that in a lesser writer’s hands might seem freakish. But Oria’s compassion for the plights of her characters is clear in the way she explores their thoughts and actions. Rather than make a big deal out of how her characters are different from our society’s expected norms, Oria presents their lives in a matter-of-fact way that makes empathy and understanding easy, and that makes it possible to more easily explore the nuances of the human condition. This is no small feat, and that Oria balances out the pathos of some of the stories with an at times wicked sense of humor is a testament not just to her skills as a writer (which are great) but also to the idea that we should all spend more time in the in-between spaces, where nothing is right or wrong, and where the unconventional becomes the new normal.