A Tale For the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
NY: Viking, 2013
Do you love wordplay? Are you fascinated by the mysteries of time? Have you ever felt all alone in the world? Hopeless? Do you think the direction of a life can be changed? Have you ever tried meditation, or do you practice it regularly or maybe just thought about it? What about walks on the beach and finding surprising objects washed up by the waves? Do you believe in magic of fiction? Answering ‘yes’ to even one of these questions tells me that you will find this book as absorbing as I did.
For the time being,
Words scatter . . .
Are they fallen leaves?
In Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, one of the two protagonists is named Ruth and has much in common with the author. Ozeki says of Ruth the character that she is “semi-fictional,” adding that “if pressed, I would have to call myself semi-fictional, too.” One difference is that Ruth Ozeki the author is a Zen Buddhist priest, as well as an author and filmmaker, while Ruth the character only learns about meditation from Nao.
Nao. Now. Can we ever grasp ‘now’? This is one of the questions that the character Nao brings to the story and brings to Ruth the character (hereafter called simply ‘Ruth’), who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox protected by a series of plastic bags, the outermost covered with barnacles. There are letters in the package, too, and a Japanese military watch from World War II. Did the plastic bag ride the tides all the way from tsunami-struck Japan to Ruth’s island off the coast of British Columbia?
Ruth is a novelist and has been working on a memoir ever since her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and is now deceased, came to live with Ruth and Oliver on the island. The memoir isn’t going well, and Ruth worries at times that she herself may be developing Alzheimer’s.
The spring had dried up, the pool was clogged and stagnant. She blamed the Internet. She blamed her hormones. She blamed her DNA. She pored over websites, collecting information on ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, parasites, and even sleeping sickness, but her biggest fear was Alzheimer’s. ... Like her mother, Ruth often forgot things. She perseverated. Lost words. Slipped in and out of time.
And now comes the distraction of a diary washed up on the beach, the diary of a Japanese teenager who writes as if addressing an unknown friend, as if she is writing to Ruth.
Nao’s voice begins the novel. She is writing because she has decided to commit suicide and before dying wants to record the life story of her great-grandmother, Jiko, still living, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun. Nao writes with a purple gel pen in a repurposed book—that is, a book in which the original pages have been removed (“hacked,” she says) and replaced with blank pages. She writes in English, having spent most of her girlhood in California before her father lost his job and the family returned to Tokyo. The title on the cover of the diary, the title of the book it used to be, is À la recherche du temps perdu.
The girl’s life has become a nightmare. Her father is unemployed and depressed, suicidal. The family’s savings was lost when the dot-com bubble burst and his American stock options went belly-up. Now back in Tokyo, they live in cramped, miserable housing with the sounds of their neighbors’ sex-for-hire activities coming through the thin walls. Her years in America schools have put Nao behind her classmates in Japanese language and thus in every other subject, and they bully her unmercifully, so severely that it amounts to torture, and her clueless mother (Nao hides her victimhood from her parents), working to support the family, can only suggest that Nao spend more time with her “friends,” maybe participate in some after-school activities. All this Ruth learns gradually as she reads the diary, pacing herself to try to read at the same speed that Nao was living when she wrote the pages.
At first the reader may suspect a deus ex machina when Nao is packed off, against her will, to spend the summer with her great-grandmother in a remote mountainside temple. Will the girl solve all her problems through learning meditation? Her father accompanies her to the temple, and when she sees how happy he is there, it begins to seem like an answer for his unhappiness, too. Nao decides will persuade him to spend the summer there with her. Perfect! But no, when she wakes in the morning he is gone. And while Nao learns much from old Jiko and passes the summer contentedly learning the temple ways, when summer is over she must return to a father still depressed and suicidal and classmates intent on finding ever more ingenious ways to torture Transfer Student Yasutani.
Jiko is an important character in the book, perhaps the central character in a way, although she says less than anyone else, but also important, in their different ways, are Nao’s father, Haruki Yasutani, and Ruth’s husband, Oliver. Oliver is an eccentric botanical artist with visions of enormous, time-dependent, living works that few can understand or appreciate, a fascinating character in his own right. Then there is the cast of the scattered isolated Canadian island community, people such as Muriel, a retired anthropologist who worked on middens and who loves nothing better than sorting through garbage, and Benoit, the Québécois who runs the local dump. Here is a description of Oliver and Muriel at the kitchen table:
Oliver and Muriel talked on, although it was not quite a conversation they were having, Ruth noticed. Rather, their exchange sounded more like a session at an academic conference, two professors taking turns at the podium presenting information that they both knew, and more or less already agreed with.
Although facts are being presented, the talk is more mutual grooming behavior than any delivery of information. Haven’t we all heard and even been part of such sessions? Ozeki does not write about "social glue" but catches the gluing in process.
Nao’s troubled relationship with her father finds quieter echoes in Ruth and Oliver’s marriage. Ruth shares the diary with her husband, reading aloud to him at bedtime, but is offended and upset when he does not respond in the same way she does to the unfolding story. Does Oliver think Ruth is crazy? Does Ruth see Oliver as a loser?
The dead in this story have a great influence on those who remember or rediscover them, adding their complications to developing plot. Ruth’s mother lives on in island memory and in her daughter’s love and fear, while across the Pacific Nao discovers her great-uncle, Haruki #1, through her great-grandmother, and elevates him to hero status for his suicide death as a patriot kamikaze pilot. When she compares her father to him, she is ashamed of Haruki #2, who cannot even commit suicide successfully.
The living and the dead, the spoken and the written reveal themselves only in and through time. There is no all-at-once but a gradual unfolding. Oliver’s cat, the cat at the temple, the crow that calls to Ruth from a tree in the yard and in her dreams—all these, too, are time beings.
Because you see, on the first page of this novel we are jolted out of an ordinary, unreflective and passive reception of words. “Oh, it’s all right for the time being,” we say casually. For now. Until something better comes along. We put the accent on the first syllable of the word ‘being,’ having given the first three words equal, unstressed status. We are accustomed to the phrase and give it little thought, and so the title does not jar us. Then Nao introduces herself: “My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” and to make sense of this statement we must put the stress on the word ‘time’ and rethink the phrase. And so it continues through the novel, the gentle pressure to rethink what we think we know.
“Together we’ll make magic,” writes Nao to a reader she imagines in the future. Ruth Ozeki has made magic with this novel. I finished it one afternoon and began rereading the same evening.