Shelly is one of the first people I met in grad school, and we’ve been touch ever since. For a while, we met up and wrote across from coffee shop tables from each other, interspersing gossip and work. Watching her collection emerge into the world has been a special thrill because of this. I remember it when it was still scrawled in her little notebook!
New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 is a truly singular book. No one writes like Shelly. Some of this comes from, she has said, the fact that English isn’t her first written language. Is that why her sentence constructions are so interesting and the way she fits those sentences together into paragraphs and pages so unusual? Probably in part, but the particular tone and feel of the book comes mostly from Shelly’s sensibility. I think a little bit of using a sewing machine when I read her work. It’s little perfect stitch after little perfect stitch, and then hit the “reinforce” button, go backwards for a few stitches, then forward again. She will often make a statement, repeat it, and then write something like, “By which i mean:…” Constructions like this make for really neat structural elements and underscore the precision with which Shelly writes.
A few stories in the collection are very subtly speculative. In one, a fog is cleared by professionals in the wealthy parts of town, but left to devour the poorer sections. In another, a woman works as a “soaper,” washing people for a living, in a world where there are periodic stops in time. I love that these elements are presented in such a quiet, integrated, non-flashy way. When outrageous events like time-stoppages are presented as normal, there is more space for real-life elements–like the fact that all young Israelis are forced to serve in the army or that families are forced to move around during constant wartime, fearing for their lives–to stand out as strange. It’s easier to believe that people can sweep away fog than it is to believe that every eighteen year old in Israel is required to learn how to use an automatic weapon.
I loved all the stories in this collection, but my true favorite was “The Disneyland of Albany.” I don’t want to tell you what it’s all about because it would reduce it to its plot and it is irreducible. A father and his young daughter, who he doesn’t get to see very often, take a trip to the titular city so the father can take a meeting about selling some of his art to a big spender–see? That makes the story seems small when it is actually about so much more. It braids together the personal concerns of an artist, estranged husband, lover and father with some very political ideas concerning Israel in a way that is natural and surprising all at once. The daughter is used to heartbreaking effect without ever slipping into precocity. It’s really an incredible story, with an incredible title, too.
This is a special book and you’ve probably not ever read anything like it, which is as good a reason to pick it up as I can think of–click and buy, folks! Happy holidays.