Rhyming Life and Death, the claustrophobic new novella by the famous Israeli novelist Amos Oz, takes place almost entirely inside the head of a famous Israeli novelist, who is named the Author. He, in turn, is confined to a few decrepit blocks near a rundown cultural center in Tel Aviv. He has been invited there by the Good Book Club to participate in a discussion of his work. The prospect fills him with dread, partly because he can't stand the kind of questions asked at such events ("Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? Are you trying to influence your readers, and if so, how? ... Do you write with a pen or on a computer? And how much, roughly, do you earn from each book?") and partly because he knows that in trying to answer them, he'll pile "lie upon lie."
Arriving early to steel himself, he sips coffee in a café and studies a waitress's buttocks as well as the café's other patrons. Later, stationed on a dais with his fellow panelists, he scans the faces in the audience. In both places, he allays his discomfort by making the clothes, features, and tics of the strangers spread out before him the basis of feverish fantasies about them, as though the act of "picking their pockets" for material arouses him sexually. Over the course of the evening, his creations take on lives of their own. Some enchant him; others hound him. But none offers him escape, because their lives turn out be to even sadder and lonelier than his.
How does a novelist arrive at such an inauspicious view of the creative process? In an introduction to a new anthology of his fiction and journalism, The Amos Oz Reader, critic Robert Alter points out that Oz, the grand homme of Israeli letters, has been writing in the claustrophobic mode since the beginning of his career close to 50 years ago. You perceive this most clearly in his landscapes, which feel cut off from hope. Oz's first novel, Elsewhere, Perhaps, is set on a small kibbutz surrounded by jackals, enemies, and brooding mountains. The kibbutz itself is a warm and magical yet oppressive place, "imagined," in Alter's words, "as a microcosm of the Jewish state." Later novels, as well as Oz's great 2003 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, take place in the pre-1948 Jerusalem of his childhood, a city surrounded by hostile armies and filled with premonitions of doom.
Oz's political essays root his paranoid visions in the realities of life in Israel, a state that is itself the result of a problematic creative process. Oz is a Zionist, and he holds that the Jews had no choice but to create Israel. They had nowhere else to go. But having done so, he says, Israelis should not look for forgiveness and accommodation from those they have displaced, at least not in the immediate future. Nor should they seek total victory or total peace. "The best we can expect," he wrote shortly after the Six Day War, "is a process of adaptation and psychological acceptance accompanied by a slow, painful awakening to reality, burdened with bitterness and deprivation, with shattered dreams and endless suspicions and reservations that, in the way of human wounds, heal slowly and leave permanent scars."
As visions of political reconciliation go, this is a remarkably novelistic one. It casts the nation and its opponents as individual personae, doppelgangers, even, seeing and acknowledging each other with all the tolerance for pain and capacity for mutual recognition that morally complex characters could ever hope to muster. Oz's scenario puts the Middle East peace process in the realm of the imaginary, no less than the triumphalism and pacifism it repudiates. In Rhyming Life and Death, on the other hand, Oz calls the imagination into question. What good does it do, really? Can his imaginings ever amount to anything more than solipsistic self-gratification?
There are a lot of ways this book might have turned out. It could have been a rueful, self-congratulatory look back over a career—a Stardust Memories in novelistic form. It could have been a knit-browed investigation into the ethics of fiction. Instead, and luckily for us, Oz has boiled it down to a juicily sadistic fable of creation. Grim as the Author's world is, it is also a demonically joyous production. He takes great pleasure in fashioning his characters, but he takes as much pleasure, or more, in wounding them. That is how he brings them to life.
No sooner has the Author named the café waitress Ricky, for instance, than he gives her an unrequited love for a sports-car-driving soccer player named Charlie, who once, quite a while ago, took her to a sea resort and tickled her ear with his tongue, then abandoned her for Lucy, runner-up in the town's Queen of the Waves contest.
Next, the Author overhears two men at the next table discussing the misfortune of one Ovadya Hazzam, a high-living lottery winner now dying of liver cancer. The Author promptly assigns him a catheter attached to an overflowing urine bag and a night nurse who ignores his calls for help in order to chat with a doctor.