A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)

A tiny sparkle caught Ruth’s eye, a small glint of refracted sunlight angling out from beneath a massive tangle of drying bull kelp, which the sea had heaved up onto the sand at full tide. She mistook it for the sheen of a dying jellyfish and almost walked right by it. The beaches were overrun with jellyfish these days, the monstrous red stinging kind that looked like wounds along the shoreline.

From barnacle-encrusted jetsam that washes up on a beach in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, Ruth Ozeki weaves together a highly innovative tale about time and the self. Ruth the narrator, like Ozeki (is Ozeki), is an American writer with Japanese ancestry; a novelist. For ten years Ruth has worked on a memoir which she began as a way to record both her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and also “her own feelings and reactions”. Suffering from writer’s block and unable to contemplate reading over what she has written to “consolidate the structure” of the “ungainly heap” she turns to the diary inside the Hello Kitty lunch-box she has found on the beach.

Ruth goes in search of sixteen-year old Nao, both in the literal purple prose of the handwritten diary and online for traces of evidence that she was a ‘real’ person. She looks everywhere and anywhere across time where Nao has left her mark. So far, so normal.

What raises this novel from good to dazzling is the way that Ozeki draws attention to the creative process and blurs the division between teller and tale, reader and writer. Ruth the novelist writes a tale about a novelist-turned-memoirist called Ruth who turns from writing herself into being to reading another self into being – that of a teenager called Nao (pronounced Now) who has written herself and her great-grandmother into being – and the whole is written into existence by Ruth (the narrator) who annotates the tale. At a further step, Ozeki as creator brings the reader into existence to read a tale formed out of the “gyre memory” of oceanic drift.

If all of this sounds pretentious it most definitely is not. A Tale for the Time Being is highly engaging, thoughtful rather than didactic. Nao’s diary is concealed within the covers of a “hacked” copy of In Search of Lost Time. Alongside her record of peer-bullying, a depressed father and decent to the darker side of life (she writes her diary in a “French” café in ElectricTown, Tokyo) she relates part of her great-grandmother’s autobiography. Jiko is a 104 year old feminist–radical-Buddhist nun who lives in a remote temple. Nao visits her for part of the novel and gains insight and solace but not enlightenment. Back at home her life is still tortuous. Also within Nao’s diary are pages from a family “secret French diary”: stories within stories.

Strong narrative voices add authenticity to the parallel narratives. Nao’s forced jollity grates at times, after all, there’s only so much teen angst anyone can take.

I had to look on the bright side and try to make the best of things. At least Dad hadn’t hijacked the bus and driven it off the side of the mountain. At least he was still here with me, and maybe- maybe he wouldn’t leave. Maybe I could do something to make him stay. Because even though he promised to come back and pick me up at the end of my vacation and take me to Disneyland, what if he didn’t? What if the special doctors couldn’t fix him? Or what if, on the way home, the urge to die got too intense, and he suddenly had to hurl himself onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Disneyland Super Express? He didn’t really care about shaking hands with Mickey-chan after all.

Ozeki peels back the emoticons and exclamatory tone and injects pathos and compels us to sympathise with Nao as much as we want to tell her to take it down a notch or two. Ruth adds scholarly footnotes to Nao’s diary where she explains references to complex theories, unfamiliar concepts and contextual material (quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, WWII kamikaze pilots) and these are further cross-referenced to appendices that expand on specific topics, such as Schrödinger’s cat and Hugh Everett’s theory of “many worlds”. The effect of Ruth’s writing in the margins of Nao’s diary draws attention to both the tale and its telling.

An outsider in Whaletown, a “spectre of the past” (“whales are time beings”), Ruth shares a wooden house outside of town with her ecologically-aware husband Oliver, who teaches permaculture. Oliver considers that the lunch-box has probably broken off from one of the “eleven great planetary gyres”, a “drifter” from the wreckage of the Japanese tsunami. In the forest, he observes “time unfolding … history embedded in the whorls and fractal forms of nature”.

Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut … He planted groves of ancient natives- metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginkgo- species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago.

Through Oliver’s battles against misinformation and fierce local opposition to his planting scheme Ozeki examines the connectedness of life across time. On a trip to a secret clam garden they consider the irony of “native” Pacific oysters, which originated from Japan: “ ‘You used to be able to walk barefoot on the beaches’ ”, Oliver says, as they look over a landscape of razor-sharp oyster shells, and Ruth wonders “when the last oyster was harvested in the beds around Manhattan ”.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be …

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you.

Who are you and what are you doing?

What are you doing now?

I have only scratched the surface of this heartbreaking, uplifting novel. A Tale for the Time Being is a testament to the power of words – a tale whose ideas and characters resonate long after the final page.

Note -I read the paperback version which comes with a ‘fully interactive paperback jacket’. It’s also available in a hardback and eBook bundle.

Do check out Ruth Ozeki’s website: Ozekieland – webworld, for more details and information.

A Tale for the Time Being is on the shortlist of the 2013 ManBooker Prize, announced tonight (Tuesday) – I do hope she wins.

[reposted from EarthLines Review]

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