Dislocated Characters in Tel Aviv Fiction
With its breezy reputation as a fun-in-the-sun destination for pleasure-seeking Israelis and tourists alike, Tel Aviv doesn’t seem to have a dark side. But in two new collections of short stories, the shiny surface is scratched to reveal something murkier below.
The spiky and deliberately off-kilter collection by Shelly Oria, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14), is filled with characters, mostly young or in early middle age, who pivot back and forth between the United States and Israel; for these searching souls, there is nothing stationary in their lives, nothing solid or grounded or permanent. Instead, everything seems provisional, constructed from scratch without a blueprint. Gender and sexual orientation shift; national identity is called into question.
In the title story, the Israeli-born and -raised narrator has been romantically involved with women but finds herself in an affair with another expat Israeli, a guy named Ron. Ron is also involved with Zoe, and the three form a self-styled ménage à trois in which the alliances keep changing. The narrator asks herself: “Who is this person? That me who isn’t Israeli and isn’t American, isn’t gay and isn’t straight — who is she?” The story’s affecting ending brings her no closer to an answer. Oria often plays fast and loose with form, abandoning conventional narratives for the list of kisses recounted in “Documentation” or the spare, verse-like snippets that chart the marriage in “My Wife in Converse.” She may well be the voice of a generation that has banished certainty and predictability to the realm of the rotary dial and instead accepted a new, uneasy truth: all is in flux.
Tel Aviv Noir, an anthology edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron (Akashic Books, $15.95), shrinks the focus even tighter: distinct Tel Aviv neighborhoods that lay bare their gritty, less-than-lovely aspects. In the very first sentences, the two 22-year olds at the center of Julia Fermentto’s “Who’s A Good Boy?” take off their shoes and dip their feet in the fountain on Rothschild Boulevard. They also shoplift, smoke, flirt with the guys who hit on them and in one case, get slapped. They are bored, they are confused, they are filled with a hazy desire for something that continues to elude them. In “Slow Cooking,” by Deakla Keydar, the narrator invents an elaborate fantasy about one of the customers who frequents the supermarket where she works. In her mind, the man, a doctor, is separating from his wife and newly single. She too is separated from her husband, and can project all her longing — for connection, for meaning — onto him, only to be disappointed when the fantasy unravels. But an encounter with an African refugee she meets in Levinsky Park offers her an unexpected moment of grace. “All at once, all eyes left me and focused on the food. Mouths began chewing, the room was filled with the pleasant sounds of forks against plates and spoons against bowls. Good food sounds. My food. Nothing could ruin their appetite for it.” And in this humble moment, even the seamiest side of Tel Aviv is briefly redeemed.
Yona Zeldis McDonough’s sixth novel, You Were Meant for Me, was published by New American Library in 2014. She is Lilith’s fiction editor.