An amorphous journey: Dalia Rosenfeld’s debut short-story collection

Rosenfeld mixes dashes of wry humor into many of her stories.

ROSENFELD’S STORIES often feature ‘women who fail to connect properly’ with their loved ones. (photo credit: REUBEN MUNOZ/MCT)
ROSENFELD’S STORIES often feature ‘women who fail to connect properly’ with their loved ones.
(photo credit: REUBEN MUNOZ/MCT)
Dalia Rosenfeld’s debut short-story collection has gotten glowing reviews from several respected publications and even merited a mention in Sports Illustrated. On the back cover are words of acclaim from literary superstars Gary Shteyngart and Cynthia Ozick.
Ozick observes, “Flying above what we are used to calling ‘conventional realism,’ Rosenfeld points to a shimmering spot just beyond the horizon, and leaves us yearning.”
In the face of such profound praise, it is with some trepidation that I admit my reading experience did not match that of Ozick. Rather than leave me yearning, many of Rosenfeld’s stories left me scratching my head.
There is no question that Rosenfeld is a talented writer. A graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop who now teaches creative writing at Bar-Ilan University, she is a master of her craft on a technical level. She chooses words with the care of a composer choosing notes, yielding magnificent sentences.
Some of Rosenfeld’s stories feature what I might call a shining sonata; others a lively allegro. Yet to my ear, the symphony sounds unfinished.
The protagonists in these stories generally are women who fail to connect properly with their parents, husbands, lovers, coworkers and friends. They are prone to oversleeping and migraines, to misunderstandings and missed cues. This sense of disconnect is often echoed in the structure of the stories, which tend to lack a traditional beginning, middle and end.
Some readers certainly may relish this amorphous journey out of the box, but I found it disorienting.
The few tightly knit stories did appeal to me. “A Famine in the Land,” for example, opens with a description of a shopping trip to an apparently lowbrow supermarket in search of parsley.
“Nobody goes to the IGA for parsley; I would be the first,” Rosenfeld writes. “Peter was enjoying a first of his own at home, standing in front of a pot with chicken in it and waiting for something magical to happen. And parsley is the most magical of herbs. A single sprig in your mouth, and all the difficult things you had been daring yourself to say to your spouse no longer need to be said: you have been cleansed.”
This tale continues along the same delightful vein. Mixed into the plot’s soup is a bar mitzva student who “smelled of school and unbrushed braces” – a brilliant descriptive phrase – and a disastrous dinner at the home of an aging hippie couple with a pair of bratty preteens. Hungry after said dinner, the protagonist goes on an ill-advised late-night run to the IGA in search not of parsley but of “something frozen, with that processed smell” and arrives in time to witness an armed robbery.
Rosenfeld mixes dashes of wry humor into many of her stories. In “Vignette of the North,” a seller of tomatoes at a local farmers’ market coaxes an eccentric artist at the market to come over for dinner and paint her portrait on a background of her tomato stall. She can barely contain her excitement as she prepares to look at the result, only to be crushed when she sees that neither she nor her tomatoes appear in the picture.
“Taking a deep breath, she faced the finished work. Splayed out on the canvas before her, in varying shades of yellow, was an enormous ear of corn, its brown tassels hanging like limp locks of hair. Behind the corn stood rows of melon vines, and behind them, a dwarfed windmill surrounded by clusters of oak trees and sand hills.”
The painter explains unapologetically, “I remembered too late that it should have been tomatoes... But if you look carefully at the base of the stalk, you’ll see a ring of striped yellow-headed larvae, which feed on corn and tomatoes alike. I didn’t put them in there for the fun of it.”
She’ll get the last laugh when she finds a self-portrait of the artist – seated among her very own tomatoes – hanging in the restroom at her dentist’s office. She considers snatching the painting to donate it to charity or use as firewood. Upon further contemplation, she concludes that “the proper place for such a painting was where it now hung, above a toilet in a dentist’s office, far from the walls of a museum or the warmth of a private home.” And then she relieves herself in full view of the painting.
I am hopeful that I will find more such gems among Rosenfeld’s work in the future.