Thursday, July 22, 2021

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.


One of the things I have learned as a parent is that when your teen recommends you read a book, you should. Particularly if you desire that they read books you suggest. Of course, if you have teens who are avid readers, their suggestions will probably be pretty good. That is the story behind this book. 


My second kid, who is sixteen-going-on-ready-to-run-the-world, has been responsible for a number of our book discoveries over the years. As a child, she was in to all things rodent, which led to The Tale of Despereaux and thus Kate DiCamillo, and Secrets at Sea and thus Richard Peck - neither author of which I was familiar, but both of which have become favorites. She went through some specific phases too: the Redwall books, Harry Potter, and most recently Ursula Le Guin. She also became fascinated with everything Japanese a few years ago, from their often bizarre snacks (we get her a subscription for that) to the cuisine, and she went so far as to teach herself enough kanji to get by. This has also included a fascination with Japanese literature, and East Asian novels in general. I suggested she read The Vegetarian and Kitchen, which she loved, and she told me I needed to read this book, A Tale for the Time Being. All of this has meant some wonderful conversations about books and writing styles and cultural stuff. 

 First, a bit about the author, Ruth Ozeki. She is both American and Canadian by nationality - she divides her time between Massachusetts, New York, and a remote island in British Columbia - and spent time studying and teaching in Japan. Her father was Floyd Lounsbury, who is pretty renowned as a linguist for his work with Native American languages, so his name pops up everywhere you see discussions of language families in either American continent. Her mother was of Japanese descent. Ozeki has produced Japanese television documentaries and award winning films in addition to her career as a writer. Oh, and she is an ordained Buddhist priest. She must be quite the force of nature, judging from her bio. 


Before I get into the plot of the book, I think it is worth mentioning that Ozeki appears to be a character in the book - as in the actual her as a character, not a thinly disguised stand-in. An author, Ruth, lives on a remote island in British Colombia, with her husband Oliver, who is an environmental artist...and, well, I couldn’t find any differences between the character Ruth and the author Ruth. I imagine this is fully intentional. 


Ruth the character is the center of one of the two threads in the book. While walking on the beach, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up, with a bunch of interesting items in it, but particularly a diary purportedly written by a teenage girl in Japan. That story is the second thread, the story of Naoko. The two threads alternate before eventually coming together in kind of a magical-realism sort of way. 


The title is a wordplay, in case that wasn’t obvious. It is a story about the present, about moments, and so on. But “Time Being” is also used in the sense of a being who experiences time. Because we humans live in linear time, and experience it in one direction, we are “time beings,” not to be confused with whatever your concept of eternity or existence outside of time might be. And then there is Naoko, who goes by the shorter version, Nao. Another obvious wordplay. There are others, but those are the once that weave throughout the book. 


So, about Nao. She lived most of her life in California, but when her computer programer father lost his job in the dot com crash, they lost their immigrant visa and had to return to Japan, where Nao is mostly lost and floundering. She doesn’t fit in, and is brutally bullied. (As in, there is an attempted gang rape scene.) Her parents aren’t doing much better. Her father is in a deep depression, and attempts suicide three times during the book. Her mother, now the sole support of the family, has become a workaholic, and neglects Nao. The one bright spot is old Jiko, Nao’s great-grandmother, who is a Buddhist nun. After the first suicide attempt, Nao is sent to live at the monastery for the summer, which does her quite a bit of good. However, a return to school and even worse bullying - and another suicide attempt by her dad - convinces her that she will also kill herself after he finally succeeds. But first, she writes the diary, intending to make it a biography of Jiko. She never gets there, however, and when the diary ends, there is no real indication of what eventually happened to Nao. 


Ruth, of course, is reading this years later, because the diary (and other objects related to Nao’s family) had to float across the Pacific Ocean. I believe Oliver estimates about 10 years later. So whatever has happened to Nao has already happened, something that Ruth tends to forget as she tries to locate Nao and her family. 


So that’s at least the outline of things. In between is a decent bit of philosophy, both Western and Eastern, and quantum physics, and how they fit together. Also, a touching story of an old woman and a young girl, a city girl trying to figure out her life on a remote island, an exploration of the physical and mental decay of aging, a harrowing look at depression - and writer’s block, some history of the kamikaze pilots, the earthquake and tsunami, climate change, and cat named Pesto, because he is a pest. It’s quite a bit, and there are over 400 pages of book, so there is time for it all to unfold. 


As my kid and I discussed, there are some decidedly Japanese stylistic quirks to the story. (Although, Ozeki being American/Canadian, the book is definitely a blend.) While she hasn’t read any Murakami yet, I certainly saw some parallels. The non-linearity of time is certainly a common feature of modern Japanese literature, as is the blending of history with the present. It seems as if World War Two looms large in every book since 1940. In a way, here in the United States, so does the Civil War, even though we are in far deeper denial about it. While plenty of books do and always have had elements of bringing the past into the present, it seems that there is something specific about how Japanese literature does it, where the problem of the present and the problem of the past are so interconnected that solving the present requires some sort of “solving” or even changing the past. It is more than just the usual “we must understand the past in order to understand the present” thing, but where an actual re-living and re-centering and re-interpreting the past is a mysterious spiritual requirement for unlocking the present. Thus, the circumstances of Nao’s great uncle’s death as a kamikaze aren’t just important for understanding the family, they literally become the central key to “fixing” Nao’s father. 


There is also that interesting kind of magical realism that seems specific to Japanese literature. If I were to describe it, it would involve the way dreams are used. They aren’t just dreams in the sense we Westerners think of them - our version sees dreams as ways that the gods speak to us, portents and warnings and prophecies. Instead, dreams are a way of using the supernatural to affect the real world. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, both dreams and trances become portals to an alternative universe - perhaps the more real, spiritual, underlying world - and the things the protagonist does there become the way he solves the mysterious problems in the “real” world. Very much the same sort of ideas occur in this book. Nao is able to harm her nemesis while in a trance, and she is able to survive her attempted rape and her brief experience as a prostitute by using her ability to leave her body. Ruth doesn’t have trances per se, but does have dreams she can control. She is able to see Jiko in them, and even ask questions. In the big turning point in the book, she is able to go back in time and across an ocean to affect the outcome of the story. It is this kind of magical realism that seems to be distinctly Japanese. 


Also of note, as what seems to me to be one of the specifically Japanese or at least East Asian ideas is that of bodily fluids interacting with the magical elements. I am thinking of the use of semen ejaculations in Murakami, and in The Vegetarian, and the use of menstrual blood in this book. 


Ozeki’s wide personal experience really shows in this book as well, as she is able to compellingly describe the nuances of culture from various parts of Japan, western Canada, and New England. If one premise of the story is the existence of all moments, even if they are experienced separately by the time being, then the existence of all these places in the one author is surely a parallel. And I think that too is intentional. Just as the stories of Nao and Ruth are only perceived as separated in time, so too are their respective places only perceived as separated in geography. In the mind that is enlightened, all can be perceived at once. 


There are a few lines that I jotted down. Many of the chapters have interesting quotes, and two of them were particularly good. 


“A free man, that is to say, a man who lives according to the dictates of reason alone, is not led by fear of death, but directly desires the good, that is to say, desires to act, and to preserve his being in accordance with the principle of seeking his own profit. He thinks, therefore, of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is a meditation upon life.” ~ Spinoza


Spinoza is one of the philosophers that I find fascinating. I certainly do not agree with everything he said, but I found his practical approach to ethics to be refreshing as a counter to the dogmatism of the fundamentalist subculture I grew up in. Likewise, his early exploration of psychology led directly to later ideas by William James, the pragmatist who most closely expresses my own views on many things. 


Next is this quote from Dogen Zenji. 


“Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only pasing, then you do not understand the time being.

“To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”


The central psychological conflict in the book is definitely Nao’s attempt to reconcile her brutal experience of the world with the idealistic and gracious vision that Jiko teaches her. I think this particular musing by Nao is interesting. 


If you ask me, Japan is not so peaceful, and most people don’t really like peace anyway. I believe that in the deepest places in their hearts, people are violent and take pleasure in hurting each other. Old Jiko and I disagree on this point. She says that according to Buddhist philosophy, my point of view is a delusion and that our original nature is to be kind and good, but honestly I think she’s way too optimistic...But I’m still glad old Jiko believes we’re basically good, because it gives me hope, even if I can’t believe it myself. Maybe someday I will. 


That’s pretty much where I’m at after the last ten years. Not too long ago, I was in the optimist camp. And then Trump happened. And my mom declared war on my wife, willing to destroy relationships rather than show basic respect. I have found that with so many people I thought I knew, empathy and human decency were not a point of commonality. Like Nao, it really seems like a lot of people take pleasure in hurting others - particularly those outside the tribe. Trump just tapped into what was already there. 


The last quote is from Oliver. I am not sure what to make of the relationship between Ruth and Oliver. It seems kind of strained, but yet loving in its own way. Ozeki is pretty hard on Ruth in the book, letting all her warts hang out, so to speak. But Oliver is frustrating too. And they seem so often on different wavelengths altogether. Anyway, they get into a discussion about Ruth’s premonitions as she goes through the diary. Oliver’s response is great. 


“It felt like a premonition. What do you think?”

“Premonitions are coincidences waiting to happen.” 


This was an interesting book. Ozeki is a good writer, and the story itself is compelling. It was a bit rambling in places, but that wasn’t really a bad thing. There are some disturbing moments, and it certainly is not a kid friendly book, but everything ties in with the needs of the story. I could also see this book as a gateway to Japanese novels in translation. It is just Western enough to feel familiar, but with a good introduction to the Japanese tradition as well. 


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