May 04, 2015

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki


Penguin Books, 2013.


Five Stars


A Tale for the Time Being is the story of an author on a small Canadian island who finds a Japanese schoolgirl’s journal washed up on the beach. It is the simple story of a connection across time and place, and yet it is so much more than that. Between Zen koans and quantum physics, Ozeki weaves a tale that I could not get enough of. The author/narrator, also called Ruth, tells us that she has to force herself to slow down while reading Nao's journal, and I felt the same way about this novel. There is so much substance that I will have to read it several more times to grasp it all, something that I look forward to doing.


I admired most every facet of this novel, and there were a multitude of shiny facets to admire. It is a novel of ideas, many ideas, and all of them somehow fit together. The fact that quantum physics, Buddhism, environmentalism and teenage suicide can all be woven together – or become entangled, in quantum language – illustrates one of Ozeki’s main points, which is the non-duality of the world and all of the ideas in it. Seeming opposites are in fact the same, or as Nao’s great-grandmother Jiko would say, “Not same. Not different, either” (p. 194). Jiko, a nun, lovingly offers the Buddhist world view to Nao and to the reader. Ozeki herself is an ordained Buddhist priest, yet she manages to present these teachings in an everyday context, without coming across too heavy-handed.


In fact, none of the intricate details of science, philosophy or religion felt too heavy – they were woven into the story line and interpreted with Nao’s openness and acceptance. Nao, who at first seems like a happy, normal teenager, soon becomes darker as she faces the extreme bullying of her classmates and the suicide attempts of her father. The choices she makes create new realities for her, and we never exactly find out which reality she ends up in, although her final correspondence does seem hopeful. Much of this hope comes from her great-grandmother Jiko, who endows her with the idea of superpowers that can be as simple as accepting oneself as we exist at this moment in time.


The contrast between Nao and Ruth is also one of east and west, innocence and experience, spirituality and science. Although they never meet or even interact in the same “time being”, the existence of the other gives them both meaning. Their interactions through time begin to feel more authentic to each of them than their present reality – Ruth even forgets that the story in Nao’s diary is happening in the past and thus it is not “urgent” to save her from the 2011 tsunami, which occurred several years earlier. Speculative theories of time are illustrated as Ruth feels time fluctuate and finally collapse in the dream world she constructs to interact with Nao.


Then we come to Ruth-as-character versus Ruth Ozeki the author: their shared biographical information place us in the realm of metafiction, and yet perhaps it is instead an alternate quantum reality. In which reality does “Ruth” find Nao’s diary? Is she really Ruth-the-author, existing on another quantum plane? This line of thought causes us to question the reliability of almost everything, including our present reality and the immutability of the past. Nao’s journal, her great-uncle’s letters, and even Ozeki’s novel all show that acts of reading and writing both create and destroy – both the reader and the writer have agency over the other, and every creation/interpretation inevitably destroys an alternate possible reality.


At one point, Ruth’s husband’s cat goes missing, and we don’t know if he is dead or alive – the cat’s name also happens to be Schrodinger. The husband laments that it is the not-knowing that is the worst, although he eventually opens the metaphorical box and finds the cat alive. Alternatively, we never learn what happens to Nao conclusively, and so she becomes another example of Schrodinger’s quantum thought experiment: until we open the box, the cat (or Nao) is both alive and dead. I think the not-knowing is the point: all we can do is be happy now, in the instance of life we currently inhabit, as a being in time. Jiko’s final words are an imperative call to live, “For now. For the time being” (p. 362) and that is all we can really do.


Ultimately, this is a story about being, now, in this time. It is a tale of magic realism, grounded in quantum physics and speculative theories of time, with a generous dash of Buddhism and ecology. It is truly amazing that the narrative does not get dragged down by its many themes, and I think this is because these themes, like everything in life, are entangled and inevitably connected. Ruth Ozeki is an incredible story teller, and I cannot wait to read more!

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