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