The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life & Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.
There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.
The story takes place in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s. A famous Israeli writer in his forties—referred to only as the Author—has been invited to a cultural center to participate in a literary evening devoted to his work. His question-and-answer session with the audience is the last part of the program, preceded by a critic’s lecture and a professional reader’s recital of excerpts from one of the Author’s books.
Before arriving at the cultural center, the Author stops at a café, and we get our first chance to see his creative mind in action. He has barely communicated his order to the waitress before he has begun to speculate about her, and has soon mentally concocted an entire fictional history of her life. Far from this being an idle fancy of his, it turns out to be the Author’s primary way of seeing the world. Almost immediately we get similar speculative portraits of two other café customers, and then, at the cultural center, additional portraits of several audience members as well as the critic and the center’s director. In each case, the Author assigns the person a fictional name, even when it would be reasonable to expect (as with the critic and the director) that the Author would know the person’s real name.
After the program, the Author initiates a conversation with the professional reader, whose (apparently real) name is Rochele Reznik. He escorts her home, then wanders the streets in the company of his various thoughts and imaginings; later he returns to Rochele’s apartment and attempts to seduce her. Afterward, he wanders the streets again, thinking more thoughts, imagining more scenarios about the lives of the people he has met this evening. And that’s essentially it.
Which would be fine if the Author’s speculations, memories, and aesthetic theories were unique or compelling. But for the most part they seem banal, as when, for example, he imagines one of the audience members (whom he names Arnold Bartok) meditating on the supposedly symbiotic relationship between life and death:
One might say, he argues, that life and death came into the world together, as a dialectical pair whose members are indissolubly interdependent: say life and you’ve said death as well. And vice versa. The day life appeared on Earth, death appeared with it.
But this is a completely false supposition, Arnold Bartok reasons. For millions of years trillions of organisms flourished on Earth without any of them ever experiencing death. . . . Only in the present age, when a different form of reproduction, sexual reproduction, appeared, did ageing and death occur.
In only one instance do the Author’s thoughts rise above the predictable to take on a haunting, touching quality, when the Author debates with himself about the ultimate value of the fiction writer’s task:
He is covered in shame and confusion because he observes [his subjects] all from a distance, from the wings, as if they all exist only for him to make use of in his books. And with the shame comes a profound sadness that he is always an outsider, unable to touch or be touched . . . .
To write about things that exist, to try to capture a color or smell or sound in words, is a little like playing Schubert when Schubert is sitting in the hall, and perhaps sniggering in the darkness.
Even so, one can’t help feeling that these sentences would be more at home in an essay (such as those that appear in Oz’s wonderful 1999 collection of literary criticism, The Story Begins).
But the deeper problem with Rhyming Life & Death is illustrated by Oz’s handling of the Author’s return to Rochele’s apartment. At the start of this sequence, each new step in the narrative is introduced with words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “but there is another possibility”—as if the sequence were not really unfolding in time but were only another of the Author’s speculations. Nevertheless, actual narrative choices are being made: Oz inexplicably drops the qualifiers as suddenly as he’d introduced them; the sequence does after all unfold in a definitive manner; it contains actions and reactions; certain things transpire while others do not. Oz is trying to have it both ways, but the rules of fiction virtually forbid this. Because if the sequence is speculative, then nothing would prevent the entire novel from being speculative: not just everything the Author imagines about the lives of those around him but the visits to the café and the cultural center—the initial events from which the rest of the novel springs—and even the existence of the Author himself.
Of course, nothing in fiction is “real,” but in order to make any sense fiction has to posit itself as real or else call explicit attention to its artifice. But Rhyming Life & Death does neither. Instead, the text just hangs in a void, leaving no firm ground on which to engage with it. Rather than being an artist’s exploration of the “shame and confusion” of indulging in idle fancy, the work itself becomes an idle fancy. Even a narrative about the basic falseness of narrative could be made to feel true in the hands of a careful writer, but in this short, self-canceling novel Oz has abdicated the artist’s responsibility of shaping his text and making it signify something. Art doesn’t get much more incoherent.
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