"The Worlds We Think We Know," by Dalia Rosenfeld, Milkweed Editions, 248 pp., $16
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When putting together her outstanding collection of short fiction, “The Worlds We Think We Know,” the debut author Dalia Rosenfeld decided to open and close with different versions of the same tale. That’s not to say that she trucks in clones, but that her title is bookended by stories of the damage done by escape artists. In her first tale, a disgruntled Russian husband flees alone to New York City, where he finds new ways to hurt his wife back home; in the last, a single American makes aliyah, only to be emotionally evaded by her Israeli lover.
Flanking these narratives of disappearance — whether literal or metaphoric — are two more stories in the same vein. In one, an Israeli soldier fails to return home; in the other, an aging American scholar struggles to recall the man who mugged him and got away. Set in locales including present-day Jerusalem, the permafrost region of Russia and the streets of Manhattan, Rosenfeld’s best stories focus not only on loss, but on its aftermath: living in the presence of absence.
Reprising this theme underscores a common truth about exits: when one person leaves, another gets left behind. But millennia after the Israelites fled from Egypt, is there anything fresh to say about the subject? Turns out, when it comes to Rosenfeld’s fiction, there is. Like junked car parts recycled into “found” art, all the old literary tropes that get bent and burnished by the Israel-based American author, a writing instructor at Bar-Ilan University, feel at once familiar and strange, fathomable and mysterious.
Rosenfeld’s success at this oxymoronic blend comes from her ear for dialogue, which she tunes almost perfectly to the pitch of human ridiculousness. When Misha, the runaway Russian husband, finds himself in a competitive brag-fest with the owner of his Manhattan hotel, their exchange sounds like a mashup of trash talk drawn from “Game of Thrones,” science and PBS.
“‘This is how I get my women,’” the hotelier boasts, while dyeing his gray beard red. “‘Not with ice, but with fire.’” Not to be outdone, Misha says: “‘I got my woman also with fire.’” His claim is literal: during their courtship, he and his wife watched educational TV about volcanic islands. “I have never seen so much lava and ash on a single channel.”
Absurdity aside, when our sense of déjà vu arises, it rests on this: “The Worlds We Think We Know” is populated by voices known to anyone who loves Jewish fiction. Setting up shop in it are folksy echoes of Yiddish humorist Sholem Aleichem; surreal scenes like those penned by Israel’s Etgar Keret; and opaque characters resembling those drawn by the Polish-born short story maven Yehudit Hendel. Yet Rosenfeld’s fiction never sounds derivative.
What makes Rosenfeld’s storytelling feel fresh is her diction, which, in turn, is powered by her habit of pairing up jarringly odd mates. Her comparisons often startle, as when Misha’s wife likens his mumblings right before sleep to “a group of children met by a closed park gate.”
The surprise of her prose can also be delivered more subtly, often pivoting on the pinpoint of a conjunction. In this book, words like so, and and or have the power to link up inner and outer worlds; the past with the present.
When the title tale’s narrator, an unnamed American woman in Jerusalem, struggles to wake one morning, we’re whisked from the scene to an imagined shtetl, winged there by a three-letter word: “There were plenty of Jewish sounds around me, but none was the sound I needed, the supplication of a stooped old man rapping at my window in search of a tenth soul for his minyan.”
Along with such mystical moments, Rosenfeld, like the American short story writer Grace Paley, creates idioms meant to mimic the speech of immigrants, as well as those who offer them temporary beds. Some of her adages achieve comic brilliance, as when Misha’s new landlord manages to work both penny-pinching and infidelity into the same sentence. (“Screwing anyone other than your spouse puts a strain on the box springs, and those bastards are over fifty years old.”)
Less often, however, her newly coined Old World sayings are oblique to the point of nonsense, as when Misha’s recently abandoned wife wonders why he continues to write her letters: “Now that there is nothing left to say, Misha has discovered a second pen at the tip of his tongue, and he slobbers all over the paper like a baby learning to speak.” What?
For the most part, though, “The Worlds We Think We Know” so skillfully captures a range of realities that it’s hard to imagine them otherwise. Its most effective prose can be surprisingly plain, as when the title tale’s narrator — the sleepy American — visits weekly with a Holocaust survivor, Lotzi, whose only “conversation” consists of eating sliced onions paired with bread.
Lotzi’s silence may contain worlds — or it may not. “Not everyone was so hesitant to talk,” the narrator says. “[J]ust the other day, standing in line at the shuk for tomatoes, I was grabbed at the wrist by a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s and made to understand that Anne would have grown up to look just like me.”
What Lotzi does have is a son in the IDF, and he and the narrator become lovers: “Every day I waited for Yair to call, and every day he called,” she says. But as a soldier, Yair is generally gone, and so he remains, in some way, unknowable; clothed even in moments of nakedness: “That night I saw Yair without his army uniform. A hamsin had blown in from the desert, filling the air with a fine sand and stray refuse from the Jerusalem streets: candy wrappers, plastic bags, pages of newspaper swirling as though in search of a fish to wrap themselves around.”
Not all men in the book vanish. Some stick around for decades — their whole lives, even. One such husband, in the tale “Thinking in the Third Person,” helps his wife, the narrator, escape her provincial surroundings via ever-inventive sex. “[A] passionate lovemaker,” she says, “[h]e understands that to enjoy the compromised life we live in this small town, we must carve out a parallel life in a universe of our own making — that is, of his own making but with my permission.”
Still, many of Rosenfeld’s male characters function like sealed bank vaults of knowledge about family traumas suffered back in Europe, whose locks get picked at by their daughters.
One such man, in the tale “The Four Foods,” is the author of scholarly books on Jewish history, who refuses discuss his subject with his daughter. Trying to explain why he intimidates her, she says, “My father is an imposing man. Small, with dark sad eyes and gums that bleed when he brushes them in the morning.”
The past is so weighty, it crushes those who think they own it. In the final tale, “Naftali,” Dina, another writer and American living in Jerusalem, chases the love of a sabra who’s chosen to be the living ghost of his grandfather, a doctor who was slaughtered by the Nazis. Despite being born decades after WWII, Naftali’s made his existence into a mausoleum of Lvov, Poland.
Instead of flowers, he sends Dina a box of notes on the Holocaust, making a relic of the gift he might have hand-delivered to her door. She explains: “We were separated by only an alley, but we were not neighbors. Our streets, named after rabbis of competing dynasties, ran parallel to each other and, as such, would never meet.”
Never mind. Who we end up meeting in the “The Worlds We Think We Know” is a gifted author finding her first mass audience. Given what each has to offer the other, neither is likely to vanish.