Ruth Ozeki's latest novel A Tale for the Time Being
I'm not sure if it was by coincidence or by design, but her book, officially released today, comes right after the two year anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. This tragedy plays a large role in the various plots and themes in A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that, like Ozeki's first novel, My Year of Meats, is a twinned narrative. We are first introduced to Nao Yasutani, a fifteen-year old Japanese schoolgirl who is writing in a journal that's been hacked from Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or the title as it's also known as, Remembrance of Things Past). We learn in the subsequent chapter that the first-person narrative of Nao is actually being read by a novelist named Ruth (whose chapters are told by an unnamed omniscient narrator who seems content, for the most part, to only tell us about Ruth's thoughts and actions) who discovers the red-covered diary enclosed in a Hello Kitty lunch box (along with a bundle of letters written in Japanese, a composition notebook written in French, and a Seiko watch with kanji inscriptions on the back) that is wrapped in layers of Ziplock freezer bags, barnacle encrusted, hidden among layers of seaweed. Ruth finds the freezer bag/Hello Kitty lunchbox/Diary et al while walking on the beach near her home (which she shares with her artist/environmentalist husband, Oliver) off the coast of British Columbia. And although she has been struggling for nearly a decade to finish a memoir about the last years caring for her Japanese American mother who died from Alzheimer's, she finds herself immersed in reading Nao's story (at the pace in which Nao writes it), which is also the story about Nao's parents (a housewife who is forced to take a job at a publishing house once her husband is first fired from his job in Sunnyvale California, then moves his family back to Tokyo, where he fails to secure another job and tries, unsuccessfully, to kill himself by jumping in front of a train) and Nao's 104-year old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist monk who is also a radical anarchist feminist writer.
Is this the time to also tell you that Ruth Ozeki splits her time between British Columbia and New York City, is married to an artist/environmentalist named Oliver, and in an interview right after her second novel came out talked about an autobiographical project writing about her Japanese mother who had Alzheimer's?
A Tale for the Time Being is the story of Nao and the story of Ruth. It is also the story of Nao's kamikaze pilot uncle, Haruki #1, the namesake of her father, Haruki #2. It is the story of Oliver, Ruth's husband and of their cat, Pesto (who is actually named Schrodinger after the thought experiment, Schrodinger's cat, which is also a major theme in the novel). And as you can guess from the paragraph above, this postmodern novel has readers wondering are they reading something based in fact or based in fiction or perhaps a blurring of the two (as Ozeki did with My Year of Meats, she plays with readers' notions of fiction and non-fiction, particularly by including footnotes peppered throughout Nao's narration). In reading the story of Nao, Ruth (and readers) learn about the ruthless bullying by her classmates that she endures (a theme all too timely in our day and age), her deep affection for her great grandmother, Jiko Yasutani, and the choices that her family members make (both living and dead) that have shaped the course of their (and others') lives. As Ruth tries to find out what happened to Nao (who she fears may be suicidal like her father), readers learn about Ruth's writer's block, the austere beauty and insularity of her Pacific Northwest remote island home, and about quantum physics. We also learn about the ways that major catastrophic events, 9/11 and the earthquake/tsunami reverberate across space and time.
At heart, the novel emphasizes a theme of interconnectedness, timelessness, and pacificism, all in keeping with the Zen Buddhism that clearly informs both the narrative and Ozeki's person (the biographical notes tell us that she, herself, is a Zen Buddhist priest. There's so much more that I could tell you, about the contents of the Japanese letters, the French composition notebook, about whether Nao survives her bullying, whether her father's suicidal thoughts continue, whether Ruth ever restarts her memoir, and whether Oliver is successful in finding Pesto, who gets lost in one of many storms that batter their island home. But I won't say much more because this is a novel you will want to dive right into, enjoying the ways in which the chapters talk back and forth to one another, from Nao to Ruth and back again. It is a novel that had me slowing down as I noticed that there weren't many more pages for me to flip through, wishing that like Ruth, perhaps I could find more pages and more words to prevent the inevitable end from happening.