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by Amos Oz and translated by Nicholas de Lange

Pub Date: April 14th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-15-101367-8
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As an exercise in literary gamesmanship, metafiction subverts the typical relationship between author and reader. Though lit-crit scholars may ponder the essence of words on a page and what they might possibly “mean,” readers generally want to lose themselves in a riveting plot driven by characters of depth, coherence and verisimilitude, whose fates reveal something essential about our lives and our world.

Israeli novelist Amos Oz performs an exquisite balancing act in his taut, evocative novel Rhyming Life & Death, which immerses readers in the vagaries of the creative process, never letting us forget that there’s an author pulling the strings, making the decisions—however arbitrary—and making us complicit in the illusion that these words on the page somehow represent lives lived, destinies fulfilled and desires thwarted. “He wrote more or less the way he dreamed or masturbated,” explains the protagonist known only as “the Author,” a creative projection of the author (Oz). “[With] a mixture of compulsion, enthusiasm, despair, disgust and wretchedness.”

As Oz takes us inside the writer’s mind, nothing much that happens within this novel exists outside that creative consciousness. The Author has agreed to appear at the “monthly meeting of the Good Book Club at the refurbished Shunia Shor and the Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack Cultural Centre.” Before his appearance, he sits in a coffee shop, anticipating all of the questions that he has heard so many times before and has never been able to answer adequately for himself: “Why do you write?...What role do your books play?” And so on.

Yet a waitress who catches his eye and libido means more to him than all of those unanswerable questions. Certainly more than the pronouncements of the literary critic who will accompany him onstage, making grand, Clintonian assertions about “the actual meaning of the term ‘meaning.’ ” Instead, the Author finds himself spinning a narrative in his head about the waitress, a narrative that will eventually encompass other elements. Reality, in these pages at least, exists only in the mind of the Author, who, of course, exists only in the mind of Oz.

After the questions and answers with his readers, the Author may or may not have a sexual encounter, one in which he must try to conjure a narrative that will counter his self-consciousness and allow him to rise to the occasion. In fact, it’s up to the reader to determine whether the plot takes this course or another. As Oz reminds us throughout this spellbinding fable, readers are partners with novelists in this enterprise of fiction, imagining in our heads what exists only as words on a page.