Monday, December 16, 2013

A Tale for theTime Being by Ruth Ozeki

Hardcover, 422 pagesPub March 12th 2013 by Viking ISBN13: 9780670026630

Every picture I’ve seen of Ruth Ozeki shows her smiling broadly, like a woman who knows what happy is. How then, I wondered as I began this wonderful, fabulous, crazy novel, does she have her main characters contemplate suicide? This disconnect was one spur to my reading, and the other was the clarion voice and view of teenager Nao who told us of her life in Japan.

Ozeki does what great authors (e.g., Morrison, Saramago, Kertész) do: she takes critical, current questions we face as human beings on earth and makes us think about them. She also offers answers, something for which I admire her even more. She allows us to realize that there are people of great talent and humility out there who are willing to put their wealth, time, even lives on the line for the least of us. She makes us look at the world in a new way. She gives us hope.

I have placed Ozeki among the greats, but she is less somber than the others often are. She is playful. She is funny. She is real. I attribute this ease of handling big issues to Ozeki’s life as a Zen Buddhist priest. There was not a moment I was not rapt in her vision. This novel is a mystery, slowly unfolding, about a young girl whose diary washes up on a Canadian island some years after the tsunami disaster in Japan. The girl tells of her life and that of her parents after they moved back to Japan from America in the dot com downturn. It is not a happy time, and both the young girl and her father contemplate suicide. Her hundred-and-four-year-old-great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, discourages this path.

Parallel to this are the lives of Ruth (who rescued the diary), her husband Oliver, and their cat Pesto. All live near Whaletown, a locality on a small island off the coast of Vancouver. She is a writer, he is a land artist, and the cat is a pest. Ruth claims to experience writer’s block, but at the same time she admits to dream-like sessions where she writes for hours, unconscious, only to awake and reread what she has written with surprise and awe. It is difficult for me to imagine a woman with Ozeki’s vivid imagination having writer’s block, but I think many of us can write…we just can’t always write meaningfully on a specific topic whenever we sit down. Writer’s block, dreaming, same thing.

There is also something bigger here, a discussion of wave theory and quantum theory. If one has time, and inclination, there is something larger behind the ordinary story of a girl displaced and despondent, or a woman with writer’s block, though both can be related to these larger theories of how the world works. And I like to think that Haruki Number Two was on to something with his work in origami, bending and folding and placing two dissimilar moments in time next to one another, so closely that they align and form something new.

If I were a graduate student in literature, I might just like to take on the notion of dreams in the works of Pynchon (Bleeding Edge) and Ozeki (For the Time Being). There is something impactful in the dreams we often disregard, and perhaps we should pay attention.

Anyway, there is nothing new in being despairing about the evil in the world, or the possibility of multiple outcomes. “Nothing is new, if you buy the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.” We can use our knowledge for evil or good, and there have to be enough good folks left alive to keep bad folk in check. We must struggle on to make a difference in outcomes.


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