In M.C. Escher’s 1956 lithograph The Print Gallery, represented space is made to curve so that what seems to be an exhibit hanging on the wall turns out, as the eye travels over the picture, to contain the entire gallery. In visual art, an effect of this sort is easily categorized as an optical illusion — but then the representation of three dimensions in two is an illusion by definition — or impossible object. It gives pleasure or irritation, but it doesn’t call the whole artistic enterprise into question.
Things are different when similar effects are carried over into fiction, as they are in Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death. An Israeli writer known only as the Author attends a cultural evening at which his work is analyzed, read aloud and discussed. He imagines lives for some of the people in the audience, and those who share the podium with him, giving them names and histories. Scenes between the Author and these figments are played out with variations, are reworked or erased, rather as happened with the Gielgud character in Alain Resnais’ 1977 movie Providence.
The destabilization is more drastic than Escher’s and suddenly there is need for a technical term: postmodernism. The reason for the difference must be the element of time and the fact that readers don’t just contemplate that illusory third dimension but inhabit it continuously. The book is on the beguiling end of the scale for such experiments (whose single most enjoyable example must be David Hughes’ The Little Book), but readers are likely to experience something more like an eviction than a piece of playfulness.
Rhyming Life and Death is partly a sketch of a particular psychology, though that is something that could have been managed in any number of other ways. The Author is almost oppressed by his inventions, but can’t help appropriating details from everyone he meets, a sort of metaphysical kleptomania. He has developed a dread of physical contact with strangers and imagination is his only remaining access to intimacy: “He continues to watch them and write about them so as to touch them without touching, and so that they touch him without really touching him.” Does creativity supersede the world or merely
Any book with an unnamed writer at its center must expect to be seen as autobiographical. At first, this seems not to be the case with Rhyming Life and Death, since the Author is a few decades younger than the author, except that the book has a period (1980s) setting. The Author’s career is distinctly unspecific, except for one odd detail. He has a day job, as an accountant (though there’s no detail given about that life either). Perhaps playing the game of postmodernism is a relief from the role of compulsory conscience, which attaches to any writer in a controversial state, just as the period setting, though recent, seems a time of innocence.
When Escher produced his 1948 image of two hands drawing each other, he didn’t risk testing the viewer’s patience, but the equivalent is-it-me-or-isn’t-it? strain in postmodernism rendered even so vital a writer as Philip Roth a bit of a bore in novels of the 1980s and 1990s. Amos Oz has a light touch, but there’s no disguising the way postmodernism rewrites the contract of fiction to the apparent benefit of the writer.