7 | A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This is the first fiction book I’ve read this year and it was a rough one. My friend L.S. pretty much exclusively reads fiction so I decided to go for it and read something less depressing, especially given my recent reads. While walking through the stacks of my local library, I saw the binding art out of the corner of my eye and was immediately drawn to it- it’s such beautiful art! Plus, I had recently been to Japan (which and where much of the plot is centered around) and want to read more by women and POC authors so I decided to give it a whirl. Admittedly, I find fiction difficult to read sometimes because I’m an impatient person. I don’t give the book the time of day to develop the plot, the characters and the world the story takes places in– I’d much rather read nonfiction because it’s rooted in the real world and I understand the contextual laws and mores. So reading a fiction piece which, I also might add, had an element of magical realism, was a little bit of a daunting task, one I felt unprepared for.

The story is essentially a back and forth between pages of Nao’s diary that Ruth is reading and Ruth’s actions and thoughts as she is processing Nao’s diary. Ruth, a Japanese-American author, lives in British Columbia on a remote island with her ecological-artist husband Oliver, and one day while walking along a beach, finds a barnacle encrusted freezer bag with among other things, a diary written in Japanese, a watch and a stack of letters written in French. Ruth and Oliver assume the bag is debris from the 2011 tsunami off the coast of eastern Japan that killed thousands and literally swept villages away. Their theory is right, and as Ruth becomes consumed with the fate of Nao and her family, a series of dreams and clairvoyant happenings ensue, enabling Ruth to literally intervene in Nao’s life, and therefore influence what the diary says.

Nao, a 16 year old girl who was raised in Sunnyvale for much of her adolescence as her father was headhunted for a job in the tech industry, is depressed, bullied, and really living a horrible life. Her family relocated back to Tokyo after her father got fired from his job and lost their savings, resulting in her having to attend a local Japanese school, her 39 year old mother having to work for the first time in her life and worse, her dad becoming a hikikomori, a withdrawn recluse. Nao decides very early on in the story she wants to end her life, but before then, she wants to write a book about the the life of her 104 year old great grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun who lives in a secluded temple in Miyagi Prefecture, on top of a hill overlooking the coast. Ozeki does not hold back when crafting Nao’s story; the diary recalls horribly graphic scenes such as Nao’s classmates cornering her in the bathroom, recording with their cellphones as they try force a male classmate to rape her and upload the footage online and another bit about Nao losing her virginity to a hentai, a pervert, as she begins working for the manager at a cafe in exchange for being able to use the space to sit and write her diary for free during the day. Ruth struggles reading Nao’s diary and worries about Nao’s outcome after the tsunami, so much so that she dreams of Nao and her family, trying to figure out what happened. Did she die in the tsunami? Did her father commit suicide? Did she commit suicide?

Towards the last third of the book, elements of magical realism and metaphysics are infused to the story as Ruth sees signs in her dreams, is able to place objects in Nao’s story, and experiences pushes and pulls both towards and away from various diary passages. Members of the small community she lives in, through both annoying nosiness and genuine curiosity, help her translate bits and pieces of the diary and the letters, and she finds they were not written by the same person. While the diary was written by Nao, the letters were written by her deceased great-uncle Haruki, a young philosophy student turned kamikaze pilot during WWII. Ruth realizes that she knows more of the truth about Nao’s family than Nao herself did, and is somehow able to intervene, helping Nao to see what her great uncle’s life was like, what happened to her father and why she never knew these things.

I know very little about Zen Buddhism, except for much of the meaning of the sutras seem lost in or obscured by English, reading as nonsensical and almost comedic strings of words. Most of the sutras Nao learns from Jiko have to do with life, death, impermanence, being and non-being. Jiko teaches Nao that the only way to understand one’s life, is to realize how fast time passes. That is what it means to be a time being. One who lives in the metric of time, and who will die. Ozeki forces the reader to consider what the parallels are between Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics when she infuses into the dialogue concepts like superposition (whereby a particle can be in two or more places or states at once) and entanglement (whereby two particles can coordinate their properties across space and time to behave like a single system). Ozeki writes in the Appendices that perhaps Jiko can, through superposition, be both alive and dead, living through memory, stories and sutras and perhaps Nao and Jiko can be entangled as their paths criss-cross over the course of time. Honestly, physics concepts are exceedingly mind-boggling and tricky to me but so is Buddhism. It is being and non-being, existing and not, all at once.

Ozeki’s novel really forces the reader to understand what time is and what time it is. The back and forth, dream sequences, magical interventions, and interwoven stories skip and backtrack in time with no warning. When I first read the title, I kept making the mistake the book was called A Tale of the Time Being, but it is not of, it is for. The story is for the reader, the time being, not of, or about, the time being, or the time in existence. I hope you catch my drift. I really loved the portions of the book about Nao’s life as as young teenager in Japan and the fascinating societal expectations and phenomenons which Japanese culture has uniquely named and singled out, however perverted and perverse they are. The metaphysical musings of Jiko had me wondering a lot but I’m sure there’s so much more I didn’t even think to wonder about because it flew right over me.

So far, I’d say my first venture with fiction this year has been a fruitful one. I just have to remind myself to be patient.

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