blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | The Worlds We Think We Know, by Dalia Rosenfeld
Milkweed Editions, 2017

spacer The Worlds We Think We Know (Milkweed Editions, 2017)

“Beauty always has an element of strangeness,” goes the quote from Charles Baudelaire, who challenged artists to recreate those fleeting moments that reveal to us the unfamiliarity of the everyday. Dalia Rosenfeld deftly continues in this tradition with her debut story collection, The Worlds We Think We Know. In these inviting stories, readers encounter characters whose peculiar behaviors betray flashes of something beautiful just below the surface. These portraits, again and again, reveal a longing for sturdy ground, leaving the reader questioning the arbitrary turns that can take us to new places, even in decisions as simple as choosing on which side of the street to walk. Rosenfeld is searching for the beating heart of a place by showing us some of those people who form its lifeblood.

Rosenfeld navigates the long-distance relationship between American and Israeli hearts with characters who experience unrequited love, homesickness, and uncertainty. In the title story, our narrator, an American student studying in Jerusalem, volunteers to sit weekly with Lotzi, a Holocaust survivor who has “lost everything but the taste for bitterness and dry bread.” But these visits do nothing to help the narrator feel a connection with the foreign country in which she finds herself. She buys a bicycle in an attempt to better navigate and understand the city, but soon abandons it next to a pretzel cart. It isn’t until the narrator meets Lotzi’s son that she comes alive, locating her desire in the young soldier’s face, which she describes to him as “a map of Israel.” The narrator has fallen in love, and Rosenfeld quietly shows us the surreal strangeness of love—how it is both dependent on, and utterly changes, our geography.

A longing for stability strikes almost all the characters in this collection, but most often it remains unobtainable, too foreign and unknown. While love is the battleground, the war seems primarily to be a conflict with the inner self, as Rosenfeld’s characters struggle to unlock the mysteries surrounding them. In two loosely connected stories, “Contamination” and “Two Passions for Two People,” we meet a narrator and her lover named Igor, a Russian immigrant to America. In “Two Passions for Two People,” Igor’s overwhelming obsession with birds drives the narrator to undertake hobbies of her own, fearing that she will look passionless in comparison. When those wear off she takes to the streets, wandering and waiting for something to strike her. She comes across Igor in a local zoo, studying the birds in their confined habitat. In a bold move, she tells her lover to find another hobby, saying “America is a big country,” a sentiment that is usually meant to comfort, but here makes the reader feel a tad uneasy. In “Contamination,” Igor collects mineral deposits while the narrator works in an office gridded by cubicles. The two share meals and scientific insight in awkward exchanges, clearly worlds apart even while occupying the same room. In the wayward obsession of Igor and the depressed reactions of the narrator, both characters seem uprooted and misplaced, searching for a solid grasp of their relationship and environment. When the two fall asleep, lacking any intimacy except for the chance convergences of their two sleeping bodies, the narrator confides, “dreams complete the gesture and bring us a little closer.”

Most notable in Rosenfeld’s collection is the human desire to connect with place, to be memorialized in it. In “Vignette of the North,” we meet Simona, a vendor at a local farmer’s market who finds herself, or rather her vegetables, the subject of a painting by an artist who also makes a modest living from his sales during market day. An eccentric who paints beautiful landscapes, the artist seems to escape to places far removed from the reality of the market with its browsing customers and bright sun. Simona is so smitten with both his skill and vision that she invites him over for dinner. Her interest in the artist is wrapped up in her desire for the painter to complete the portrait of her vegetable stall. As he masterfully renders her tomatoes, she longs for him to complete the picture with her very own image.

Rosenfeld’s portrait of Simona reveals a lonely soul desperate for a solid footing, that feeling of being grounded. Far from an expression of vanity, Simona’s desire to be painted reads as a request for an affirmation of place and Simona’s right to exist within it. The artist’s portrait of the vegetable stall is incomplete without Simona, because without her there is no planting, no harvest, no tomatoes. Her work, and even her simple movement through space, contributes to what makes the world beautiful.

Rosenfeld’s stories consistently make this claim. In the opening line of another story, the narrator informs us that “the sidewalks of Tel Aviv are hospitable to everything but foot traffic.” In the “The Next Vilonsky,” Dr. Vilonsky clashes with his granddaughter, Hagar, over her predisposition for poppy-seed cake, which Vilonsky calls, “an evolutionary throwback to ancestors neither known nor asked about.” Dr. Vilonsky is struck by his granddaughter’s atavism because he struggles with the times, how Israel has changed, and what history has left for an old man like himself. Vilonsky meets challenge after challenge simply by walking down the street. He is constantly confused by how the younger generations choose to conduct themselves; he is a man from another era, and the future is what worries him most.

Both Simona and Vilonsky suffer from feeling unseated in time and space. Their self-worth is rooted in place, but the worlds they think they know continue to change shape and shift focus, leaving them behind to try to reconcile their identities. This kind of crisis remains a strange part of the human experience. How do I fit in? How is my work relevant? What am I doing with my life? These questions plague the contemporary mind, but in simple yet evocative prose, Rosenfeld guides us through the dislocating effects of love, identity, and place in a way that proves they are the very foundations of existence. Rosenfeld asserts the power of her seemingly powerless characters with a narrative voice that abounds with wit and humor and successfully alleviates the turmoil of everyday life. As they effortlessly confront foes like unrequited love, depression, and the complicated realities of a Jewish state, these stories illustrate the often surreal beauty of the human condition. Dalia Rosenfeld has written a remarkable debut that manages to transform anguish into delight, the strange into the familiar.  end  

Dalia Rosenfeld is the author of the short story collection The Worlds We Think We Know (Milkweed Editions, 2017). Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.

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