I have so much to say about A Tale For the Time Being, and yet nothing I can say. This book is one of those types of books that fully inhabited me while I was reading it, or I fully inhabited it. Which is a fitting thing, because the book is about a woman who lives on an island off of the Pacific coast of Canada who finds a zip lock back containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox, with a diary written by a 16 year old Japanese girl, along with letters and a diary from WWII, and through reading these documents, that woman comes to fully inhabit that world in the reading of them. The book is split in that way, alternating paragraphs, from the third person limited narrative view, told in the perspective of the character, Ruth, who seems very much written as a version of the author, Ruth, and the diary entries of Nao, and later, the diary entries of the WWII kamikaze pilot (i.e. a sky soldier). Indeed, on the character of Ruth, Ozeki admits writing it based on herself, as she is quoted in a good New York Times article about the book:
“My husband said, ‘You have to be in the novel,’ ” Ms. Ozeki recalled. Inserting herself into her own novel, he said, would be in line with her interest in multiple worlds, autobiography, biographical narratives and i-novels, the Japanese literary genre in which incidents in a story match those in the writer’s life.
This novel contains so much. It has a heartbreakingly vivid portrayal of Nao and the bullying she endures, and the hardships of her family. And it has the uplifting relationship she forms with her great-grandmother, a feminist poet Zen Buddhist nun. It contains many references to current Japanese culture. It has footnotes and appendices, some of which are concerned with Quantum Physics and multiverses. There is a vivid portrayal of the WWII inscription of academics into the kamikaze ranks along with gorgeous narrative descriptions and evocations of Zen philosophy (and in this, Ruth Ozeki also writes herself in, since she herself is a practicing Buddhist). The Japanese narrative of Nao is very much the center of the book, but then again, so is the Ruth narrative. It is more than just a structural device. At first the book reminded me of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which is one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read, but as I think about that book, and the construct of the narrator for that book, I think the character of Ruth may be even more fully realized in A Tale for The Time Being. The narrative construct was more of a device in Angle of Repose (at least in my imperfect memory of it). In this novel, it IS the book. The book needs both parts.
As usual, I could fill up my review with words from this book, but I will restrict myself to the two quotes that I was compelled to stop in my reading to write them down in my journal. The first is this:
As I have not much time left in life, I am determined not to be a coward. I will live as earnestly as I can and feel my feelings deeply. I will rigorously reflect upon my thoughts and emotions, and try to improve myself as much as I can. I will continue to write and to study so that when the time of my death comes, I will die beautifully, as a man in the midst of a supreme and noble effort. (p. 252).
This passage was written by Haruki, the kamikaze pilot who was snatched from his life of the mind to fight, and Nao, his grand-niece, finds solace and way to continue living through reading his words. She finds herself reflected in his letters, and also gains empathy and understanding by relating to a life that is also unlike hers. She sees herself in him, and also not herself. That is the power of empathy! That is the power of reading that I spend all semester trying to get my students to understand – I try to show them how literature is our pathway to engage with the world beyond ourselves, and to also situate ourselves within the world.
My other favorite passage comes from Nao’s diary, and I have put it at the front of my own journal. It reads as such:
If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary, then you’ll know that the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction. It’s hopeless, really. Not that now is ever all that interesting. Now is usually just me, sitting in some dumpy maid cafe or on a stone bench at a temple on the way to school, moving a pen back and forth a hundred billion times across a page, trying to catch up with myself. (p. 98)
That is the very process of journal writing. Or more specifically, diary keeping. Nao, pronounced “now,” is very much obsessed with the idea of capturing now. Of being in the present. And this, of course, makes its way into a Zen understanding of the present, of the now, and the ephemeral, impossible quality of that, and yet the importance of ever striving to be in the now, while also underlining the importance of also understanding our past in order to be in the now.
Haruki, the “author” of the first quote, was a scholar of French existentialist philosophy, and another of the great strengths of this novel is how it also shows the unity of the great guiding ideas and philosophies in the world. In existentialist philosophy, all we have is the now. There is no future, no after life to give solace, but rather, what is important is how we live, and die, in the present. That is the way of creating a good life – to be true and wholly present in the now.
In one final note, I love how the incongruities of reading and viewing comes all together, unveiling the “literary labyrinth” within which we all live. Umberto Eco wrote about this in his essay “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence,” which was published in his book On Literature. In it, he talks first of the act of having a library, within which are both books read and unread, and of the unread books, we keep them until the moment “you decide finally to open one of the many unread books, only to realize you already know it.” (p.131) He goes onto explore this phenomena of familiarity, which I very much experienced in reading this book, which was reading a book I’ve never read before, but also reading something that I felt steeped in, and utterly prepared for. Eco continues, writing:
the true explanation is that between the moment with the book first came to us and the moment when we opened it, we have read other books in which there was something that was said by that first book, and so, at the end of this long intertextual journey, you realize that even that book you had not read was still part of your mental heritage and had influenced you profoundly. (p.132)
Now this might seem rather “new age-y” but Eco builds a compelling argument, especially in the fact that as I read this book, and how Ruth’s reading of the diaries seemed to interact with the past in a way that transcended simple understanding, I was reminded of Eco’s book, a book I read six years ago, and which I haven’t really revisited since. Eco’s book has been lying within me, preparing me for Ruth Ozeki’s book. And then, in the weeks building up to reading this book, due to a composition student of mine, I had begun watching Miyazaki’s anime movies, a genre I’d never watched before. And this too prepared me for reading this book. As did my seeking to develop a meditation practice, and way to live in the now. As did the way I have re-begun writing down my dreams, and paying attention to them as a way into my deeper psyched. All this prepared me to purchase this book, seemingly on a whim, since I had heard nothing about it, and bought it only because the cover was beautiful, and the description was interesting. And thus, as Eco said, “Sometimes the most profound influence is the one you discover afterward, not the one you find immediately” (p. 133).