The Worlds We Think We Know

  • Review
By – April 26, 2017

In her debut col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Dalia Rosen­feld dis­plays a refresh­ing way with the raw stuff of life, tak­ing spe­cial delight in awk­ward encoun­ters, mis­matched pair­ings, uncer­tain des­tinies, and sexy indeterminacies.

The Worlds We Think We Know con­tains sto­ries that touch both the heart and mind and Rosen­feld is a skilled alchemist who does not par­tic­u­lar­ly care to answer every ques­tion read­ers might have about her rest­less, mal­adapt­ed, or oth­er­wise unsat­is­fied char­ac­ters but instead rewards us with deep and some­times star­tling glimpses into the mys­ter­ies of love and human con­nec­tions of all kinds. As the title itself hints, Rosenfeld’s sto­ries move flu­id­ly across time and bor­ders yet each delves into the famil­iar, inti­mate spaces of dif­fi­cult, some­times wound­ing rela­tion­ships between lovers, spous­es, par­ents, and chil­dren. And her sophis­ti­cat­ed mas­tery of a range of tonal reg­is­ters, styles, and voic­es ensures that each of these poet­i­cal­ly frag­ment­ed sto­ries feels fresh and dis­tinct. And hap­pi­ly that range often prof­fers deft touch­es of lev­i­ty, as when the pro­tag­o­nist of Flight” sar­don­ical­ly declares, I threw my arms out in the most Jew­ish way I knew how, which is to say not at all, hav­ing grown up in Indi­ana.” Or when one nar­ra­tor fore­shad­ows the like­li­hood of a dis­as­trous out­come of a dou­ble date set in an Indi­an restau­rant when she casu­al­ly observes that the two cou­ples sit with­in arm’s length of a stat­ue of Kama, the Indi­an love god who was burned to ash­es after try­ing to rouse the pas­sion of the greater god Shi­va.” And here is the belea­guered nar­ra­tor of Inva­sions”: It was a bad habit of my mother’s to always send me old Yid­dish nov­els in trans­la­tion. She thought that if I spent enough time back in the shtetl, I would stop com­plain­ing about my life in Ohio and real­ize that scour­ing the Food Lion for organ­ic broc­coli was noth­ing com­pared to the forced con­scrip­tion of ten-year-old Jew­ish boys into the tsarist army.”

As that moment of rue­ful self-aware­ness sug­gests, Rosenfeld’s char­ac­ters can find them­selves unmoored or caught up in pasts that stub­born­ly make claims on the present. In The Next Vilon­sky” an old man’s errand to the cor­ner mako­let (gro­cery) in Tel Aviv turns into an epic odyssey into intro­spec­tive mem­o­ries. Else­where, Rosen­feld veers into decid­ed­ly stranger realms such as in Swan Street,” where an invis­i­ble wife aban­doned in East­ern Europe haunts her husband’s every step in Amer­i­ca. In the after­math of a bru­tal mug­ging, the pro­fes­sor of Bar­gabourg Remem­bers” strug­gles to com­mit every vis­cer­al detail of the inci­dent to mem­o­ry but instead finds him­self in thrall to the phan­tom of a lost love. As soon as I fin­ished it, I found myself reread­ing Float­ing On Water” with great plea­sure. It’s a deeply know­ing, sen­su­al, and often very fun­ny paean to female friend­ships, with­out a false note of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, that inter­weaves love along with the pet­ty jeal­ousies and exas­per­at­ing demands that are some­how inevitably part of the fab­ric of even the most sus­tain­ing relationships.

The Shoah qui­et­ly intrudes into some of these empath­ic, risk-tak­ing sto­ries in the kind of small yet indeli­ble ways that deliv­er more pro­found­ly unset­tling psy­cho­log­i­cal insights than they might oth­er­wise in the hands of a less sub­tle writer. And though many of Rosenfeld’s belea­guered char­ac­ters are quite ver­bose, she is equal­ly skilled at han­dling the kinds of silences that take us deep­er into her char­ac­ters’ self-aware­ness and also their capac­i­ty for com­pas­sion­ate under­stand­ing of oth­ers (even when it is at the dis­tance of some decades), such as the nar­ra­tor of Lil­iana, Years Lat­er,” who rec­ol­lects her child­hood piano teacher: Lil­iana nev­er spoke of her bro­ken heart, just as I do not speak of mine now, because when one tries to put pain into words, the words them­selves become agents of new pain, like fresh paper cuts, and can­not be used again.”

Rosen­feld, a grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop who cur­rent­ly lives in Tel Aviv, proves a reli­ably mor­dant observ­er of imper­fect and vul­ner­a­ble char­ac­ters strug­gling with unful­filled appetites and desires, in lan­guage that con­sis­tent­ly daz­zles. Even the short­er works have lin­ger­ing pow­er, con­jur­ing up rich­ly immer­sive places inflect­ed by whim­sy and per­haps a touch of the uncan­ny, and are occa­sion­al­ly heart­break­ing. In a few sto­ries they seem to hint at more than one real­i­ty. She dis­plays a keen aware­ness of lone­li­ness as the essen­tial human con­di­tion, yet grace notes of humor inflect even her more melan­choly sto­ries. There are moments when her por­tray­als of the foibles of mis­fits and unre­li­able nar­ra­tors or cryp­tic urban encoun­ters are appeal­ing­ly sug­ges­tive of a Ray­mond Carv­er or Grace Paley sen­si­bil­i­ty (their qui­et epipha­nies, lit­tle notes of grace), but most­ly Rosen­feld is unlike any writer you’ve ever read and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

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