As a work by one of Israel's most honored novelists, Rhyming Life & Death seems to exist more to keep its author's skills limber than to fully engage his characters or readers.
The temptation, therefore, to term Amos Oz's short novel a finger exercise is muted only slightly by the book's strongest scene, a sexual encounter in which the notion of manual dexterity takes on a wholly different meaning.
But what other than finger exercise are we to call a novel with such a self-consciously precious scenario? Rhyming Life & Death covers a single evening in the life of a literary celebrity. What's more, the action takes place almost entirely in the hero's head, as he conjures names and back stories for the people he comes across.
The hero, named only "the Author," begins the evening in a cafe, where the waitress, attractive but careworn, serves his omelet brusquely. Aroused by her curiously asymmetrical buttocks, he idly names her "Ricky" and imagines she nurses a heart broken by a soccer player, Charlie, who has thrown her over to return to his previous girlfriend, Lucy.
This kind of thing could, of course, give rise to a meaningful if writerly narrative. And indeed, even as a finger exercise, Rhyming Life & Death occasionally delivers a good sharp pinch.
For example, Arnold Bartok, a hard-luck "petty party hack" obsessed with the possibility of eternal life, muses that for millions of years single-cell organisms divided endlessly with no need of aging or dying. "It follows that it is not life and death that came into the world as a pair but sex and death." Ouch.
In the Author's seduction of Rochele Reznik, a young woman he meets at a cultural center, Oz's power as an imaginative writer most shines. He brings two flawed characters fully into sympathetic focus as they grope with each other and with their conflicting expectations.
After the faltering lovemaking, the Author lies abed, wretched with "brutish male shame and also embarrassed to experience this age-old failure ... "
Then Oz gives away the game altogether, as the Author imagines saying, "Rochele, please don't be sad, after all, the characters in this book are all just the Author himself."
This gambit — questioning whether anything he's told us really happened — may strike Oz as a daring way to interrogate the entire writing process.
But a century after the height of literary modernism, it can be but a tired hedge. It's Oz's job to make narrative choices, to deliver a concrete story. Otherwise, he has little at stake, and neither do we.
• Chauncey Mabe can be reached at cmabe@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4710. Visit him on Facebook.