I’m not going to be coy here: I loved Ruth Ozeki’s newest book, A Tale for the Time Being (Viking, 2013). Ozeki writes herself into a complex and rich novel by imagining many what ifs:
What if I found a 16-year-old girl’s diary washed up on the beach in British Columbia?
What if Nao wrote the diary in Japan, her parent’s country, only she is horrifically bullied because she doesn’t fit in after growing up in Silicon Valley?
What if her diary seemed to be her last words as both she and her father contemplate committing suicide?
What if “Ruth” couldn’t find any trace of her on the Internet or corroborate her actual existence, but felt compelled to try to save her?
What if Time, a mystical crow, and a radical, feminist, great grandmother (who also happens to be a 104-year-old, Buddhist nun), are characters in the story?
And finally, what if the story calls into question the very nature of storytelling, and the relationship between a reader and a writer?
Ozeki asks all these questions as she weaves together a brilliantly written story from two points of view—Nao’s diary and the novelization of Ruth—thereby playing with the Zen notion of self, blurring the lines between the actual writer Ruth Ozeki, and the fictional writer Ruth. At the same time, the reader becomes part of the self that is reading Nao’s words, along with Ruth, further blurring the lines. The story unfolds slowly enough that, as the semi-fictional Ruth thinks of it, she is able to experience time the way that Nao is living it. (Or lived it in the past as she was writing the diary. See all the layers?) Ozeki describes the book as a sort of conversation across the Pacific Ocean, and across time, between two people who do not know each other.
In 2010, Ozeki was ordained as a Buddhist priest, and her novel is also a conversation with the 13th-century Zen Master Dogen on the nature of time. It is impressive how she weaves together the Zen thought experiments that Nao is encountering for the first time, via her great grandmother Jiko, as a way to introduce them to the reader and also make them a part of the fabric of the story. If you are the sort of nerdy reader who likes to go deeper, or you become inspired to delve further into Zen practice, you may want to track down a copy of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (the 2006 BookSurge Publishing translation stands out). Ozeki explained that on one level she thought of Tale as a response to Dogen’s ideas, so in a way the book is a conversation with Dogen—not to mention Proust—but I will say no more on that subject. Interested readers will discover the connection themselves.
On a basic level, Ozeki describes her story idea as a voice that came to her many years ago. One day, at the tail end of 2006, Nao’s voice came to her and she knew that she would write a story featuring this funny, strong, and sometimes sad young woman. It is Nao’s quirky teenage voice that buoys the story and keeps it from being dragged down and becoming like a thought-experiment. Her insightful, fresh approach to describing the weighty matters of human cruelty and death, redemption, and meaning, come with a good dose of playfulness and quick wit.
Nao’s “old Jiko,” her Buddhist nun great grandmother, is an equally memorable character. She’s about four feet tall, bald, and sweetly fierce. She’s described as having the sort of presence that just makes the people around her relax and feel good about themselves. Jiko charmed me while reading the book, but I fell in love with her after hearing Ozeki read a passage aloud. In that scene, Jiko and Nao encounter a leering Japanese girl gang in front of a convenience store. The combination of Nao’s voice and Jiko’s character turn a scary situation into one of insight and humor. Perhaps because Ozeki sprinkles a healthy dose of Japanese words and phrases throughout the book, the publishers agreed to allow her to read the audiobook herself, something that is rarely done. In this case, the audio version is well worth seeking out. However you like to take in your literature these days, A Tale for the Time Being is well worth your time.
Tokyo Cityscape: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/city-guides/tokyo-japan/
British Columbia: http://www.bikingx.com/britishcolumbia.html