Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being with the Book Group

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (Penguin 2013)

9781922079183Before the meeting: I doubt if I would have persisted with this book if not for the Book Group. I can pinpoint the moment on page 97 when I would have given up:

The past is weird. I mean, does it really exist? It feels like it exists, but where is it? And if it did exist but doesn’t now, then where did it go?

At what possible level could this be interesting? Yes, it’s from the diary of Nao, a 14 year old girl, but this, a couple of pages later, is from Ruth, a mature woman:

What is the half-life of information? Does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it? Pixels need power. Paper is unstable in fire and flood. Letters carved in stone are more durable, although not so easily distributed, but inertia can be a good thing.

It’s not just the banality of such writing, it’s the ominous sense that the author is out to Communicate Something. And there’s a lot of it in this novel.

However, I did persevere, and I’m glad I did.

There are two interlinked stories. In the first, Nao, a Japanese teenager who spent most of her childhood in California but returned to Japan when her father lost his job when the dot com bubble burst. She is bullied at school with increasing viciousness, drops out and makes some unfortunate life choices, but finds strength and comfort with her great grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun of great antiquity. Her father has sunk into a deep depression and tried to kill himself a number of times. Nao likewise intends to kill herself once she finishes her project of writing her great grandmother’s life story. Bit by bit, she learns the story of her great uncle, a poet and dreamer who was conscripted to be a kamikaze poet in the First World War.

In the second story, Ruth (a novelist who shares a first name and many biographical details with the author) lives with her partner Oliver (same name as the author’s partner) on an island on the west coast of Canada (where the author lives). She finds a parcel containing, it turns out, Nao’s diary – the one that is intended to become the great grandmother’s life story – and a diary and some letters written by Nao’s great uncle.

So there you have a set-up for lots of cool intertextuality, or do I mean metatextuality? We watch Ruth reading and responding while we are reading and responding ourselves. What is ‘now’ for Nao (yes, they are pronounced the same), is past for Ruth. Ruth finds out things from the letters that the Nao of the diary doesn’t know, and desperately wants to intervene, convinced that this information would pull Nao and perhaps her father out of their downward trajectories.

Oliver and his friends occasionally lecture Ruth about scientific matters connected to climate change. Nao’s great grandmother lectures on zen themes, including a neat set of instructions on how do do zazen (zen mediation). Ruth ruminates a lot on time (in a garrulous way that feels very un-zen to me, but what would I know, Ruth Ozecki is a zen priest and it’s a long time since I read Allan Watts). There’s a crow that is in some way spiritually significant. At one stage an event disrupts the space-time continuum – which would have been fine in a fantasy novel, or as a Paul-Austerish bit of postmodern play in this novel, but the characters keep on trying to make sense of it in a way that seems to be claiming great spiritual significance for it, but ends up underlining its arbitrariness.

What the novel does brilliantly is cast a net over the idea of a Japanese identity that can include such great contradictions: militarism, suicide cults, zen wisdom, cosplay, origami, brutality and a deep honouring of persons. The sections about the young men conscripted to be kamikaze pilots is gruelling and convincing. The descriptions of schoolgirl bullying, which I would have been inclined to dismiss as whipped up for effect, gain plausibility from their juxtaposition with the earlier generation’s bulling.

There are other pleasures, such as the irresistible image of Oliver hiding in a refrigerator delivery crate in the cellar to avoid visitors who let themselves in and wait in the kitchen for someone to come home (it’s that kind of island). But on the whole this a literary novel that makes me wonder why I would ever bother to read another literary novel. No doubt I’ll come back to ‘mainstream’ fiction in good time, but the next book I read will have to be either honest non-fiction or honest fantasy.

The meeting: There were seven of us. We ate pizza. There was lots to talk about. We told travellers’ tales – from Florence, Manila, Shanghai, the Yorke Peninsula and Gerroa. One chap had had a gruesome experience with warts on his index finger. Another had finally emerged from a winter of child-borne infections. Three of us had had deaths in the family since our last meeting. One of us had received an award or two in his professional life.

Three of us had finished the book. No one else disliked it as much as I did. One guy described how he kept seeing it as a different kind of novel as he progressed, and accepted the discontinuities cheerfully. He had laughed out loud when the fantasy element appeared, appreciating its – my word – impertinence. I got some glimmering of how the book could be enjoyed by so many people. Sadly, I think I managed to convey fairly eloquently how it might be disliked by at least one. Some of us found the title to be an uncomfortable mouthful, and we  all agreed that the cover design is terrible.

4 responses to “Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being with the Book Group

  1. Jonathan: You surely did NOT intend to write that Nao’s “great uncle, a poet and dreamer who was conscripted to be a kamikaze poet in the First World War”!! A kamikaze poet – now that is surreal. And then in the First (!!) World War? I guess your irritation with the book became manifest in such blips! But it added to my enjoyment of your writing. And, btw, bullying of Japanese returnees from English-speaking lands going back into school in Japan is a noted “phenomenon”. I saw some aspects on the edges of it myself in an elite middle school in Japan. Strategies which were manifest by some of my returnee students to deflect that evil eye from themselves (envy at their presumed fluency in English – one of the key subjects for entrance (matrix.) exams – into senior high and into university). No light matter at all. Look for the mid-90s Japanese movie: “Summer of The Moonlight Sonata” (Gekkou-no-Natsu – I think – in Japanese) true story of a survivor of the last/one of the last intakes of the Tokko-tai (Special Air Corps – aka “Kami-kaze” = Divine/God’s Wind). Told through the story of a retired music teacher at the Middle School where the children of my pen friend attended in Tosu-city just south of Fukuoka. Like all such movies in Japan – a real tear-jerker. I saw it when I could only understand one word in 20 – but the power of the story was in the visuals/music – of course – and friends filled me in later on the key elements – before I learnt from my pen-friend that the key teacher character had been a friend – not long passed away in fact. I haven’t read this novel. Now intrigued. Currently just finished Charles M BLOW: Fire Shut Up in My Bones – memoir of this noted NY Times op-ed. writer – will see him at a writer/talk this coming Monday 13th in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Now into Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Outstanding. Australia fits well into its exposé of colonialisation/treatment of the original inhabitants! I have turned down the top of every second leaf in recognition of equivalent injustices in OZ. It is truly a worthy companion to Howard ZINN’s A People’s History of the United States – itself a confounding of the US myths of manifest destiny and dreams – as Henry REYNOLDS has done for us – Bill GAMMAGE and Bruce Pascoe, too!

    • Thanks Jim. I’ve corrected my blooper, but left it visible so your intervention will be comprehensible. I’m not surprised that the bullying is a known phenomenon – my impression is that a lot of this book is a kind of Japanese Culture 101. I’d be interested to hear your take on it.

  2. Thanks very much for posting this. It was recommended to me on a recent trip to Japan and I have to say that I kept getting annoyed with it. I have a friend who just loves it, so I’ve said I’ll try it again – but your review both encourages me – and discourages me – to do so. 🙂

    • I love that discouragement/encouragement paradox: if you hate it you’re not alone, but there’s a fair chance you’ll end up lining it. Good luck!