A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

20 February 2014
First few sections: Nao – Ruth – Nao – Ruth…
The destruction of the planet, Zen Buddhism, overlapping narratives and metafictional games…. Sometimes I wish novelists would relax and not attempt to include absolutely everything on their lists of current concerns. The things I’ve mentioned are just a sample of what Ozeki is trying to squeeze in, and I’ve only read about an eighth of it so far.

Overlapping narratives. Nao’s opens with the tricksy false starts of an adolescent trying out different voices and personas, but settles down into the story of an unhappy 16-year-old feeling for her own identity. I’ll come back to her. Ruth’s becomes a framing device for Nao’s, because she has found the manuscript, or diary, looking like flotsam on an island beach off the Pacific coast of Canada. It’s in what looks like a bag of garbage, but turns out to be watertight packages. The diary itself is disguised, written on plain paper bound into an old cover of – wait for it – Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. Nao, she tells us, didn’t even understand the French title when she was writing all those things early on about lost time. That’s just the kind of wacky thing that happens in this novel.

Ruth, a novelist whose output has stalled for reasons that are beginning to become apparent, finds herself envying the effortless outpourings that have reached her from the opposite edge of the Pacific rim. She is half-Japanese and, with Internet help, can read the Japanese characters that often appear in what Nao has written. Nao is entirely Japanese, but has spent most of her life in the USA and writes in English. She is disorientated by the enforced move back to Tokyo and, perhaps inevitably in this sort of novel, is bullied at school. Meanwhile Ruth, an American who made her name as a novelist of urban life, is coming to realise that fifteen years in the middle of nowhere in western Canada have provided her with nothing to write about. She’s as disorientated as Nao, has resorted to drafting and re-drafting a ragged, unsatisfactory memoir of the time she spent looking after her dementia-suffering mother. Now she reads the diary of a girl who catalogues her once successful father’s recent attempts at suicide, a girl who, on the first or second page, insists that this is ‘the diary of my last days on earth.’

There are so many echoes and parallels of this sort that I’m assuming Ozeki isn’t aiming for realism. It’s early days, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that, on some esoteric Buddhist plane, Nao and Ruth are each in communion with a shared global consciousness. I’m not saying they actually do share a consciousness, or that they are the same person… but in the New Age universe of this novel, they might be. At the point I’ve reached, Ruth has woken from a dream – or was she awake? – in which she imagines, in palpable detail, a key moment from Nao’s diary. She’s there, man. And Nao, right from the start, is addressing not an imagined reader, but a very particular, very real one. ‘Who are you and what are you doing?’ asks this child of the blogging generation, as though expecting a reply. Maybe she’ll get it, eventually.

And while she’s busying away at all this, Ozeki is also covering a whole lot of wider themes. In one strand, the state of the planet is the subject of the science-based musings of Ruth’s ecology-minded husband. In his teacher-like way – I’m surprised Ruth has stood him so long – he tells her, and the reader, about the thirteen-year cycle of oceanic ‘drifts’ that has led to Texas-sized rafts of mainly plastic garbage. They wonder how Nao’s package has managed to escape becoming a part of one of these floating dumps…

…and meanwhile, in Tokyo, there’s a different take on the oneness of the earth. Nao has a teacher of her own, her ancient great-grandmother who is a Buddhist nun. For her, everything is part of everything else if only we could see it. I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but this isn’t envelope-pushing stuff in the second decade of the 21st Century. In both strands there are endangered species, like the whales almost harpoon-bombed to extinction in the tiny settlement where Ruth and her husband now live, and characters in both Canada and Japan who muse on the lives and habits of crows…. So far, I’m finding Ozeki’s way of gaffer-taping together so many different bits of philosophical and ecological flotsam rather indigestible. Things might settle down, of course, but I have my doubts.

24 February
The rest of Part 1, and the first three sections of Part 2: Ruth – Nao – Ruth
Things don’t settle down. This is a rattle-bag of a novel, in which more or less anything of current concern is going to be shoehorned in. But I’ll start with one of Ozeki’s more engaging metaphors in Part 1: Nao’s father’s habit of creating outlandish origami insects. After Nao has considerately reminded the reader what origami is – well, duh, as she herself would say – she tells us that the paper he uses is cut from the remaindered books on great western philosophers her mother brings home. He uses pages dealing with the philosophers he doesn’t like, whose thoughts are consigned to an afterlife as Japanese rhinoceros beetles or whatever. No further comment needed.

Nao’s father has become an agoraphobic, or whatever the Japanese term for that is. (In the persona of Nao, Ozeki likes to tell her Western readers of the sheaves of labels that the Japanese like to apply to one another. There’s one for the no-hoper kids in school, one for the leader of a gang of girls, one for the transfer student it’s ok for all the other kids to bully. I’ll come back to that one.) He has fallen through a hole in the fabric of what Ozeki has Nao present as the totally unforgiving Japanese career system. Like many novelists displaced from some aspect of their heritage – in my experience, it’s very prevalent among writers from the Indian subcontinent who now live in the west, but clearly not exclusive to them – Ozeki is vehement in her condemnation. We get the usual clichés from Nao: rigid career paths, schooling which is little more than a series of almost impossible hoops for students to jump through to prepare for a life of conformity, an unbearable sense of failure if something goes wrong – with suicide often the chosen response. I’ll come back to suicide because Ozeki does, all the time.

Nao, despite the atrocities perpetrated upon her, is determined not to present herself as the victim of a system that seems to be based on a collective psychosis. As it is, because this is the sort of novel we’re dealing with here, her experience is presented as a kind of extended metaphor of invisibility. After her mother discovers the bruises and cuts Nao has been suffering as the despised transfer student, she visits the school and the physical bullying immediately stops. It is replaced by something else – Nao tells us the Japanese term for the kind of ostracism that is familiar in any culture, but presented as being almost fascistically systematic in Japan – and, for what seems to be many weeks, first her class and then her whole year-group simply pretend she is not there. It culminates, on the last day of the school year, in a mock funeral – in fact, a class memorial service – officiated by the substitute teacher desperate for popularity. The world that Ozeki presents is red in tooth and claw.

Meanwhile, alongside these items on Ozeki’s check-list of cultural monstrosities, there are other strands. Nao likes to muse on time; I think it was on the first page of the novel that Ozeki introduces the cute ‘time being’ pun that she is proud enough to use in the title. Buddhist concepts of the non-linearity of time jostle with thoughts about how ‘now’ – there’s another cute pun in the main character’s name – cannot ever exist because the moment is always passing, and of how an in-box of emails is no good because emails have none of the immediacy of conversation. Ozeki has Nao scrabbling around in a kind of conceptual lucky dip like this, and I can’t help suspecting that we’re getting snippets from a notebook kept by Ozeki herself. What was I saying at the beginning about her determination to include absolutely everything?

Then there’s Ruth, Ozeki’s other alter-ego. I couldn’t help googling Ozeki, also called Ruth, also married to a man called Oliver and living on an island off British Columbia which contains a settlement called Whaletown…. However, Ruth in the novel, despite half-a-dozen other biographical parallels (including parentage and nationality), is not Ruth Ozeki. In her own way she is as lost as the girl whose diary she reads in measured sections. The checklist of Ozeki’s concerns in Ruth’s sections isn’t identical to the one in Nao’s, but there are overlaps. Items specific to the Canadian strand: ecology, the ‘gyres’ of global air and sea currents, the limited usefulness of the rigid categorisation of species during a period of climate change, renewable and non-renewable energy, nuclear power. There are also Ruth’s thoughts on the goldfish-bowl of their tiny community, the dislike she shares with Oliver of her neighbours’ habit of dropping in unannounced…. Is there a parallel with what Nao writes about the unwelcome intrusions of neighbours in their overcrowded apartment block? (Maybe.)

Ruth muses on time as well, but in different ways from Nao. She remembers her mother as they both watched on television the progress of the midnight celebrations of the new millennium across the world. Every hour, her mother would ask what was being celebrated, would be charmed by the idea, then ask again an hour later. Ozeki, as she likes to do, nudges the reader concerning the oneness of the world and, in our time, the smallness of it.

The finding of Nao’s package – I didn’t mention that it also contained a wind-up man’s watch that Ruth now wears – has made her wonder if it could have reached them following the tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan – and, of course, caused a nuclear meltdown as it passed. The experts on the island, notably Muriel the inveterate beachcomber and gossip, tell her that the currents couldn’t possibly have carried anything so far so soon. (In the Post Office on the island, where the postmistress really does know everybody’s business, one particularly air-headed woman frets over the contamination that might be present in the package of stuff which, to Ruth’s disgust, everybody now knows about.) But Ruth can’t help remembering how huge the event was, until it was elbowed off the front pages and news bulletins by the next big thing. The concept of the ‘half-life’ intrigues her and becomes another metaphor: news items, global gyres, the plastic that pollutes the sea, whole species…. Ozeki insists on these links, all the time.

I said I’d get back to the bullying. Aside from Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I’ve never read a novel that treats childhood bullying convincingly. (Ok, maybe David Copperfield comes close.) In this novel, of course, there’s a metaphorical underscoring of the issue. Japan is a bullying society and, the implication is, so are all cultures based on capitalism. It’s another idea that is far from new, and the way it is presented here stretches credibility. Yes, I know I said that I didn’t think Ozeki was aiming for realism. But it’s no excuse – and when Nao, the abused, becomes the abuser of the skinny kid she wants information from, well… some editing required, I’d say.

I also said I’d get back to suicide. I’m assuming that what Nao passes on to us about the suicide culture of Japan is another warning of a wider malaise. The life of Nao and her family, and all the people in the frankly sick society they find themselves in, isn’t that different from that of the golden world of the USA that haunts her memories. In a world gone mad – and Ozeki, of course, is always talking about the whole world – suicide doesn’t seem so crazy. Nao tells us the Japanese term for the suicides, common enough to have become a cliché, of men who have fallen off the career ladder. She also refers to the ordered neatness of an act that deals with the inchoate inexplicability of most people’s lives. (‘Inchoate’ is a word that appears in this novel, in one of Ruth’s thought-streams.)

There are other links with Ruth in the suicide strand. She finds out through the internet, almost a character itself in this novel, that the watch she now wears was made for a ‘sky soldier’, a suicide pilot from WW2. (Trope alert: in the Booker Prize-nominated Garden of Evening Mists a key character is a kamikaze pilot who was prevented from flying his mission and has never forgiven himself.) And, via a typing error, she stumbles on to the website of a professor in the US studying suicide, who has uploaded a copy of a letter clearly written by Nao’s father about his own experience. This is one of those credibility-flouting moments that Ozeki is so fond of…

…and there’s another as Ruth googles a different selection of search terms. She uses some obscure biographical details of Jiko, and, almost literally, the internet does its magic again. It’s stormy on the island – islands are another link, with Fukoshima and Manhattan in there as well as Ruth and Oliver’s – and the connection is tenuous. The search seems to have failed when there’s suddenly a flash – I’m not making this up – and, when the screen comes back on there’s a single result. Jiko, the old nun that Nao writes of, is a former feminist writer, an envelope-pushing exponent of the ‘I’ technique briefly popular in the early part of the 20th Century in Japan. But internet magic is as unpredictable as any other form, and the article she is beginning to read, incomplete anyway, disappears as the generator fails. Damn. The world might be shrinking, and links become ever more tightly bound, but sometimes a technological approach just doesn’t cut it.

Anything else? Lots, but you know how it is. How about Nao trying to imagine herself into becoming one of Japan’s living ghosts, able to send out her spirit to do harm to those who have harmed her? (At the point I’ve reached she thinks she’s done it with the girl who choreographs her torture.) How about Ruth and her dreams, so vivid that the boundaries of her own identity seem to blur? In one of her dreams – another link – Jiko rescues her from becoming entirely non-existent. Just before this moment, Ruth dreams of reaching for her own face in the darkness, and finding nothing there. And who does that remind you of?

Time to read on.

[Next morning]
I didn’t read on. But I had a terrible thought: I’m sure that this is all a softening up process, and that we’re being made ready for a twin-track process of redemption. Nao has been knocked off-kilter by the dysfunctionality of the materialistic, conformist world she lives in while, nearly half a world away – we have been reminded that North America is sixteen time-zones behind Japan – Ruth is definitely not finding what she’s looking for. Ozeki – and this might be the biggest single biographical difference between her and Ruth – is a Buddhist priest, and in Nao’s strand Jiko has just introduced herself to her after having been hovering in the background of her narrative since the beginning. If there are any answers in this novel, they won’t be provided by the school system in Japan or the science in Canada. I have a sinking feeling that, in the guise of Jiko, Ozeki is bringing out the big guns. I wonder if she’ll become another alter-ego….

1 March
To the end of Part 2
I’m in two minds about this novel. Ozeki is so determined for us to understand that absolutely everything is connected that she underlines her links and metaphors too obviously. She forces the issue so often that very little of the action seems organic or driven by the motivations of the characters. The reader – this reader, anyway – is always conscious that there’s an agenda underlying it all. Ok. But, whereas at first I couldn’t help thinking of Jiko as a female version of Yoda from the Star Wars series, I began to find the final Nao section of Part 2 rather engaging. I rather like ‘Haruki #1’, the kamikaze pilot who would have been Nao’s great-uncle had he lived. Ozeki, being a good Buddhist, wants to assure us that if you look at it in the right way, he never died. Sure, when I read of his ghost first appearing to Nao my heart sank… but maybe it isn’t a ham-fisted intrusion of magic realism. Maybe it’s our introduction to Buddhic realism, or Karmic realism. Maybe my problem with what I call Ozeki’s credibility-flouting plotting is just my Western literal-mindedness. I need to get on to a different plane.

At the start of these sections it isn’t a plane that Nao is getting on to, but a coach. I didn’t mention before that when Nao meets Jiko for the first time it’s in the context of one of Ozeki’s credibility-stretching plot moves: Jiko has agreed to let Nao stay in her mountainside temple for the summer. The coach-journey there, in the company of her father, is embarrassing, and Ozeki turns up the dial on the adolescent’s self-centred petulance. Nao gives her father a hard time for not taking her to Disneyland on the way – it’s typical of Ozeki that she’ll have a fifteen-year-old behave in this infantilised, essentially American way – but… she is pleasantly surprised at the temple to see him smile for the first time since California spat them all out. As the big bell reverberates she hears him whisper what she translates as ‘Home’. Ok, Ozeki, got it. (By the end of her chapters in Part 2, Nao has grown out of Disneyland. But, despite knowing how hard it would have been for her father to face the crowds there, she is ungracious in dismissing the idea when he tells her he’ll take her on the way home. But I’m jumping the gun.)

We need some more back story. Before she was a nun Jiko had a son, after whom Nao’s father is named. This is Haruki #1 and, in Nao’s sections, the story of his development between being drafted as a kamikaze pilot and reaching a Jiko-like acceptance of his own inevitable death feeds into a different development, that of Nao into something like a human being. It’s Jiko who sets this going, and I’ll try not to mention Star Wars again as the old woman sets tasks for the callow, self-centred girl. Nao, good Californian that she is, is convinced she has ADD and ADHD, finds her mind skittering off-task within seconds of beginning a zazen meditation session. (Her account of her Ritolin-popping classmates and their therapy-addled parents is Ozeki’s broad satire on the self-obsessed and infantilised American way.)

Inevitably – what was I saying about the agenda-driven plot? – Jiko’s magic start to work. Despite her doubts Nao tries Jiko’s ‘attacking the waves’ game, and not only finds it therapeutic but, like Ruth later on, is able to mine its metaphorical possibilities. In fact, having had her doubts about everything concerning temple life, Nao is fairly quickly won over. As in the incident when Jiko disarms (metaphorically speaking) the violent-looking girl gang they encounter while shopping, none of this comes as a surprise. But I’ll shut up about it, because Jiko’s heroic moment finally turns Nao into the good pupil she was always going to be. She is far from perfect, and Ozeki has her do some fairly silly and/or childish things on her path to maturity: she thinks Jiko will be jealous or saddened that the ghost of Haruki #1 appeared to the pupil and not to her, and she hides the damage she’s done to the picture frame containing his photograph in case Jiko is angry. As before, Ozeki needs to show the distance Nao needs to go. The reader wishes she’d get on with it.

She does get on with it. The series of Nao’s chapters that end Part 2 are about the lasting effects of WW2 in Japan, focusing particularly on Haruki #1 and Jiko herself. He, a student of French drafted into a kamikaze squadron as Japan becomes ever more desperate to turn the tide of a war it is losing, writes sensitive letters to his mother. She, although denying it to Nao at first, had felt hatred for the government in general and for Prime Minister Tojo in particular. She became a nun, she explains, so she could learn not to hate.

This is all good Buddhist stuff, and later there’s more. Nao hears not only the speech of a pilot who survived, and who visits the temple every year on the Buddhist day of the spirits, but the voice, again, of Haruki’s ghost. What he says now, and what she has already read about the cruelty of the man charged with knocking the squadron into shape – he becomes ‘the Marquis’, as in the Marquis de Sade – makes Nao think back to the relatively mild treatment she received from her classmates. She feels suitably chastened and again, Ozeki, yes, we get it. And there’s another of her elaborate metaphors. After the death of Haruki #1 the military had sent a box containing what were supposed to be his remains. In fact it’s empty but for a piece of paper with a single word, and Jiko has always taken it to be the most cynical of gestures. But, as a writer, she says she could laugh at the presentation of a word for a the actual remains – and Nao has already heard Haruki #1 laugh when she, too, finds it empty. He was a writer as well. And that watch with the characters representing ‘sky soldier’? The ‘sky’ pictogram can also mean ‘empty’. I bet Ozeki was pleased with that one.

Haruki’s letters, at the very end of this section, sit comfortably next to all this. Written between early 1944 and the spring of 1945, they cover a kind of twin-track development in him. The Japanese military does its best to dehumanise all its trainees, and he refers to visit his mother makes when she is shocked by the change in him, and the scars he carries. Meanwhile we also follow the way he becomes reconciled to the idea of his own death. (The first thing they learn, his ghost tells Nao, is how to commit suicide.) Increasingly, he thinks only of his mother and sisters, and does what he can to provide for their future. It’s as though all concern for self disappears – as I said, good Buddhist stuff.

Meanwhile, in what seem like rather thin chapters by comparison with all this heavy-duty stuff from Nao, Ruth is still struggling. She’s struggling with the professor, who isn’t replying to her email, and with the loss of any online references to the feminist book that Jiko wrote all those years ago. The smarmy Oliver suggests that there’s a ‘quantum’ problem: the more she looks online, the more things disappear. Maybe she needs to stop looking, because that’s when things appear unexpectedly. (Does he refer to the package from Nao? And how can anybody stay married to such a smartarse?) Ruth is also struggling with the French poetry written by Haruki, the French lyric Nao sings to his ghost and, even more problematically, with the old-school handwritten Japanese of his letters.

She realises (sigh) that she can’t translate them on her own, and takes the poetry to the French-speaking guy who works at the recycling place – and I’m not even going to begin on the cute games Ozeki plays with the recycling idea. But as for the letters… it’s down to Oliver to make another of his helpful suggestions. A Japanese couple run a restaurant in the nearest so-called city, and they go there. Cue a longish riff on belonging and not-belonging: they don’t feel settled, but can’t make their long-planned return to their home town because it’s been rendered uninhabitable by – guess – the Fukushima meltdown. Their son, on the other hands, feels at home in the very environment his parents find foreign. Just like… etc.

It’s Ozeki doing that gaffer-tape thing: everything – but everything – is connected. There’s that Japanese crow which, having somehow found its way to Canada in Part 1, is still there in Part 2. It’s somehow connected to the legend of the crows we hear of in Nao’s thread, and there are catfish stories too, connected via another Japanese legend and Oliver’s story of the catfish that have grown enormous around the grand-daddy of nuclear meltdowns, Chernobyl. And, no doubt, there are other connections I’ve either missed or forgotten about because, in Ozeki’s busy twin-track narratives, there are so many of the damned things.

Time to read on, I think. But before I do…. I’m about two-thirds of the way through this novel, and I’m thinking about Nao assembling the package that Ruth has received. It contains the secret diary which itself contains, early on, the information that Nao is describing ‘the last days of my life on earth’. At the beginning of the novel, this makes the whole thing sound like a suicide note, and suicide is a huge theme in her narrative. Now Ruth wears the watch of Haruki #1 because, despite its value to her, Nao has packaged it up as well, an action you might contemplate if you were about to kill yourself. Or… if you were about to draw a line under a section of your life you wanted to move on from. At the end of Part 2 Nao is on the path towards enlightenment, and she’s a character created by a writer who describes herself as a Buddhist priest. So, not suicide at all, then? Oliver has been keen to confirm that the package has not had time to reach them from the tsunami, so there must be some other, metaphorical upheaval in Nao’s life. Has she become a nun? She’s been reminding us that Jiko, aged 104, is not long for this world, that Muji is no spring chicken, and that the temple is under threat. What it needs is some young blood.

9 March
First half of Part 3
The Nao thread becomes more extreme than ever, while even in Canada we begin to see ripples in the so-far resolutely calm surface of Ruth and Oliver’s relationship. Meanwhile, of course, Ozeki crams in more themes, and forces more links. What else would she do?

Themes and links. The cyber-bullying reaches an even more grotesque level of nastiness. The day that Nao is caught short having her first period since leaving California is also the day when her classmates decide to film her over the cubicle walls of the school toilets. Sometimes I worry about Ozeki. For her, the cruelty of unregenerate humanity is simply a given. (It might account for Nao’s cruelty to her father in this section. Whatever she’s learnt in the temple hasn’t taken her very far down the path to enlightenment…. I’ll come back to that.) Now the online video isn’t of a mock funeral. It’s of… well, you know. And the enterprising kids have found a paedophile website where they can auction Nao’s stained knickers. Little rascals.

What’s a girl to do? She shaves her head, goes into school for the last time and, in a scene from a manga cartoon, screams so loudly it makes everyone’s ears bleed. (We don’t know what really happens. Maybe she doesn’t really go to school at all, because in novels these days it’s practically impossible for a narrator to be reliable.) She’s been thinking about becoming a nun, obviously, and that’s what the head-shaving seems to be about. But one of the prostitutes from her block sets her up in business instead. Nao’s presentation of this is so bland that Ruth, in a short section that briefly interrupts the flow of Nao’s story, doesn’t realise that ‘Babette’, the prostitute, is pimping for her. But Oliver does – he’s reading this alongside Ruth – and, as so often, he has to put on his explaining hat for her. She bridles at his patronising tone for a change (and ok, that isn’t exactly how things escalate) and, in response to his jibe about her failing memory she makes her own comment about him being a loser. They make up for it later, more’s the pity.

Where was I? Ozeki, as she’s done before, insists on Nao’s inherently unregenerate nature. It isn’t so much the ‘dating’ – Nao’s euphemism of choice – of the rich businessman who likes to see her wearing his own suit… although there’s more detail of her growing sexual awareness than I would wish for. She really shows her bad side in response to another of her father’s failed suicide attempts. He’s been obsessing about two things recently, one of them being the auction of the panties. She had accidentally (?) left the web-page open and he’d found it and begun bidding, as Oliver also has to explain to Ruth. The clue is in his bidding name, a version of the Latin name of a prize-winning origami insect of his, which both Oliver and Nao recognise. So she knows he was trying to retrieve them, and knows he failed. In her contempt she reminds him of how far he falls short of his namesake, Haruki #1 and, in a reply to the suicide note he’s left for her she tells him he might at least have got that right.

The other thing her father obsesses about is 9/11. (Sigh.) Ozeki writes as though she’s the first to describe the now endlessly recycled news coverage of the first minutes and hours, and the people who jumped from the burning buildings who were later edited out of the story. She focuses on the most famous of these, the ‘falling man’ whose image is a central motif both of Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), as if nobody’s ever thought of it before… but that’s Ozeki for you. It becomes another ready-made link, alongside the kamikaze pilots, to the suicide and disappearance themes. (What was I saying about tropes earlier on?) We get a riff not only on the suicide bombers, but on Nao’s certainty that she and her dad would have held hands and jumped, because she always imagines a cliff-edge as a way to enter time. Or leave it. (Or something.)

It also becomes a link to Ruth’s strand. She and Oliver had left her mother alone in the house for a couple of days, and… cue various, not unpredictable riffs on being in the middle of nowhere when the bombing of the Twin Towers takes place, trying to save Ruth’s mother from being too distressed by the news, phoning a neighbour on the island whose response is ‘What news…?’ and so on. Cue another riff, on watching other news with Ruth’s mother and another opportunity for Ozeki’s leaden satire on the US. ‘What’s this? Are we at war?’ The joke is that the answer, of course, is yes both times, but the first time it’s against Afghanistan and the second it’s against Iraq. How we laughed.

Some other links spring to mind. Before giving up on school Nao becomes briefly interested in extinctions, one of Oliver’s pet notions. And speaking of Oliver… he doesn’t consider any project of his a success until he’s disappeared from it and it takes on its own life. Very Zen. And there’s a much bigger link. The professor finally replies to Ruth’s email, and it turns out that Haruki #2, Nao’s father, is an all-round good sort. He didn’t fail at his high-powered IT job in California, he was sacked because he didn’t like the company’s laissez-faire stance on working with the military. He wanted to build a conscience into their systems, knew this to be a pipedream, but kept pushing anyway. Which leads to the yet another link…

…Ruth’s own hazy sense of the passing of time. We’ve already had her memory lapses, and now we have a different kind of lapse. It’s clear from the 9/11 diary entries, and from what the professor says – Oliver, and alert readers no doubt, had picked up a clue in Haruki #2’s loss of his money in the bursting of the dot.com bubble in Part 1 – that Nao’s diary covers 2001. And yet Ruth wants to warn Nao, explain to her that her father is not a loser, but a good man. And, of course, she wants to stop Nao committing suicide. It takes all of Oliver’s patience – he’s a saint, obviously – to explain that Nao must now be in her late 20s. If she was going to commit suicide she must have done it long ago. Who does Ruth think she is, thinking she can step out of the time continuum like this? Some kind of Buddhist? (He doesn’t actually say this….)

One last thing, in this novel in which parent-child relationships are so central. Are Ruth and Oliver happy that they have no children?

10 March
Second half of Part 3
Things become even more extreme. Not only do Haruki #1’s secret letters reveal the top-to-bottom sadism of the Japanese military, and not only do Nao’s experiences become nastier than ever… Ozeki wrenches the narrative in an extreme direction too. When I called the appearance of Haruki #1’s ghost in Part 2 an example of Buddhic or Karmic realism I thought I was joking. But it seems that this is exactly what we’re to expect from now on as Ozeki tears up the novelist’s book of rules. I’m not happy about it.

At the end of a long section – which I’ll come back to – Nao gets herself entirely up to date with her diary. As Oliver puts it, she’s caught up with herself. Ruth – who, it turns out, has been reading it aloud to Oliver – turns the page. It’s blank, and so are all the other pages after it. Ah. But Ruth (and alert readers) can clearly remember that at the beginning of the novel she’d checked that the entire diary was filled. What on earth is going on? Ruth – I’m not making this up – vainly searches for the missing words. This echoes an earlier idea, when Nao first sees the copy of Proust emptied of words and imagines them having somehow escaped…. Ozeki likes echoes, as we know.

She has several further impossible things take place, a difficult feat to get right when most of the novel is conventionally realistic… and it doesn’t work for me. We know that Ozeki likes metafictional games and now she decides to play several in quick succession. The idea is somehow planted, possibly by Oliver, that the Greeks believed that by reading a dead person’s words aloud we are bringing them back to life. Maybe, if Nao did kill herself ten or more years ago, that’s what’s been happening? Ozeki has made it tie in with Ruth’s confused wish to somehow tell Nao’s past self what she knows about both Haruki #1 and #2 – and with the idea of a magical interaction between writer and reader that has become familiar to us. From the beginning, Nao addresses the reader as though she is imagining her into existence, and as though a response is possible. It isn’t possible, obviously…

…except this is a novel, as Ozeki has never let us forget, and what can stop her doing what she likes? Apparently, in the metafictional alternative universe the characters now seem to be inhabiting, nothing can stop her at all. With all those seemingly casual references to Japanese and other myths, to the power of stories and symbols, Ozeki has in fact been laying the groundwork for a narrative conjuring trick. But she needs Ruth to be asleep because… because what? Because in traditional stories like the ones Jiko has been telling, often the best things happen in dreams. So, in a dream, Ruth is led by the letters of the word ‘crow’ – which have magically and typographically formed themselves into the shape of the bird on the page – to…

…a place I can’t really describe until I’ve rewound a little. Before reading Nao’s last diary entry – if that’s what it is – Ruth reads Haruki #1’s letters, the ones she’d had translated from the French. I didn’t mention earlier that the recycling man is so gutted by what he reads he turns to drink, something his wife is very unhappy about. That turns out to be Ozeki’s warning to the reader, and the letters are full of horrors. (They might supposedly have been written in the 1940s, but the graphic descriptions in them place them firmly in the 21st Century. Whenever I write about such descriptions of war in recent novels I always lament what I consider to be merely the current fashion. I imagine the writer’s sarcasm even as I do it: War is like this, so get over it. I imagine myself replying, Do you think I don’t know that? I’ll be glad when novelists begin to realise, as I’m sure some of them already have, that it isn’t envelope-pushing. It became just another trope in the 1990s.)

I won’t go into the details of the sadism of the trainer, ‘F’, or of the proud boasting of some seasoned soldiers about the atrocities they’ve committed. (You want burning flesh? Rape, followed by genital mutilation? Ozeki can do you all of those.) What gets to Haruki #1 is the fact that his intervention on behalf of the thoughtful, wise philosophy student, K, is what leads to K’s death. He later realises that it is possible to bear beatings and other cruelties, that K had reached this point – but that he couldn’t bear another man suffering in his place. The feeling of guilt Haruki feels becomes a new theme: later in Part 3 Ruth feels guilty that the row she started led to the cat rushing out of the house and disappearing. I’ll come back to the cat.

The secret letters present a more rounded version of what Haruki was really like. He finds himself passing through rage and an obsessive desire for revenge against F, before moving into a calmer, inner place very similar to one that Nao also mentions in her thread. This is when he realises that even when he breaks two of his back teeth F has no real power over him. It’s also when he decides that although his death is a certainty, he isn’t going to crash into an American ship. He has the power to alter the course of events… and he imagines how his little action might, in his own take on the butterfly effect imagined in chaos theory, affect the outcome of the war. Then he apologises for his own egotism.

Next comes Nao. Babette is revealed to be a grasping bully, happy to resort to violence if necessary. Nao, having previously only had one rather chivalrous client, is now forced on a date with a pervert, or ‘hentai’, that she recognises from the café used as a front for Babette’s business. (It’s the one Nao describes right at the start of the novel, except that then she doesn’t reveal its true function.) The date is all awful, and ‘I hope you don’t mind’, she writes, if she doesn’t describe it in detail. But there’s enough, including the fact that after she’s fought off his sadistic treatment of her she discovers that it’s S&M that really gets him off. She imagines Jiko’s response: ‘Sado, Maso, same thing.’ Good old Jiko and her impossible-sounding paradoxes. (‘Up, down, same thing’ is a favourite I forgot to mention.)

So anyway, there’s Nao dominating the perv, when she gets a text. It’s from Muji, who tells her that Jiko hasn’t long to live and that Nao should be at the temple for her final hours. She empties the sleeping man’s wallet, desperate to find a way to get to the temple. She imagines an impossibly hopeful scenario, with her father accompanying her by train and taxi…. She puts aside, for now, the thoughts of suicide that she has been planning since the time she started writing the diary – which, of course, was after she had crashed out of school and into under-age prostitution. (These details are becoming important. Bear with me.) She goes home and finds her father in a suit and butterfly-patterned tie she bought him when he still had hopes…. Something in a carrier-bag he’s left on the floor – it later turns out to be the briquettes used by suicides to create the fumes that will kill them – tells her what he’s going to do. He seems to have taken to heart what she wrote in her reply to his note, and this time he’s going to do it properly. What can she do? She leaves him to it, obviously…

…and makes the train journey alone. It’s as she waits overnight at the station at the other end that she brings her diary up to date, and this is the point that Ruth has reached. It’s from this point onwards that the pages are blank – and, Ruth realises, they will remain so unless she does something to alter the future for both Nao and her father. She replaces Haruki #1’s letters in their waxed covering and, taking them with her, is led by the crow on a magical journey. The first place they go to is where Haruki #2 is about to commit suicide and, if I remember rightly – as if it matters – she tells him about Jiko on her death-bed. Then… she’s at the temple, where she recognises the shrine to Haruki #1 and the empty box of his non-remains. And (sigh) it’s time for one of the oldest time-travel paradoxes in the science fiction book of tropes. Before this, Ruth and Oliver had wondered how the secret letters could have reached them, when Nao clearly knows nothing of them. Now we can guess: when Nao arrives at the temple she’s going to find them, placed in the box by the person she herself will send them to sometime in the future. I haven’t looked at Part 4 yet, but it’s a short section and I’m betting that Ozeki ties up all the loose ends.

But I said I’d come back to the cat. It’s Oliver’s cat really, and I decided not to mention it before because although its nickname is Pest or Pesto, its real name – and I can hardly bear to write it – is Schrödinger. I now suspect the name is significant after all, and not just the cute kind of thing that people like Oliver call their cats. Currently it’s lost, possibly killed by predators – it’s what causes Ruth so much guilt – so, until further information is received, it’s both dead and not dead. A bit like Nao and her father, then. Just now I was doing a Ruth, checking to the end of the book, when I noticed an appendix concerning quantum theory and multiple universes. I just know that in Part 4 we’re going to get a whole lot of stuff about different alternatives. In one universe, the one in which there is no intervention from Ruth, Nao and her father are dead and the diary remains unfinished. Whereas in a different world… etc. Give me strength.

18 March
Part 4
Yep. It’s not that I’m good at guessing (I’m not), it’s that Ozeki signals her outcomes so clearly you’d have to be blind not to find it all very predictable. Yes, Nao’s father joins her on the way to Jiko’s deathbed. Yes, they find Haruki #1’s diary in the previously empty box on the shrine. And yes, together they are able to help one another to choose a path that doesn’t lead to suicide. Instead of Nao’s diary remaining unfinished, it’s filled right to the last page. And after an old email that had previously been lost is magically restored to the professor’s hard drive, we find out that Haruki #2 was recently running his own company promising internet invisibility – it’s that theme again – and that Nao was studying French in Montreal. Ozeki deliberately leaves the tiniest of loose ends untied but, basically – as Muriel, I think, points out – they’ve got their happy ending. I’ll come back to Muriel.

Jiko gets her own happy ending in a textbook Buddhist death. She achieves the correct pose, elegantly writes an enigmatic final thought using the brush that has been brought for her, and dies. Even her position, lying rather than sitting, is a rebuff to the macho posturing of some masters. The death rites are equally idealised, with Nao and her father joining Muji in the final washing and the ritualistic sorting through the bones following the cremation. And if all that isn’t perfect enough, the last thing she has written is ‘Live’. This puzzles everybody except Nao and her father. They understand it to be her parting gift to them, and it’s a piece of advice they decide to follow. So, a life-enhancing achievement, yes? Or sentimental nonsense? Whatever, it gives Haruki #2 the chance to realise that his uncle made an even more principled stand on the conduct of war than he did himself. #2 lost his job, but #1 lost his life.

All the usual themes are there in this last section plus, this being a Ruth Ozeki novel, a few new ones. There’s another stroll around the idea of whether Nao is imagining Ruth into existence or vice versa, and Muriel even makes the suggestion that the disappearance of the end of Nao’s diary is a kind of writer’s block. (Ruth worries that she might have gone too far in telling Muriel about it, that it might make her seem crazy. But Oliver reminds her, in that way that Ozeki wants to be charming, that everyone on the island is crazy. Ho-hum.) In fact, Ozeki gives Muriel a lot of work to do in tying up some loose ends. The crow, she explains, is a powerful familiar spirit in many cultures and the Japanese crow seems to have become Ruth’s. Ok. Meanwhile, Oliver hasn’t been himself since the disappearance of the cat, as though ‘the pest’, like so many cats, is his familiar. Which leads to…

…a feel-good incident concerning them both that defies description in a book notionally written for adults. They are watching the crow, which flies towards them and drops a nut on the decking they are standing on. Oliver makes a wisecrack about a nut being clearly meant for Ruth, but no – as he reaches for it he realises the crow has revealed the whereabouts of the cat under the boards. Not only that, but Ruth now has a new supportive role in persuading him that the cat’s life can be saved. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

The loose end I mentioned is the outcome of Nao’s story. We know it’s deliberate because, as with everything else, Ozeki doesn’t leave it to the reader to work out, but has Oliver (or Ruth, or both of them) piece it together. The diary has come to an end, and no further pages magically appear. One of them says, ‘Books end.’ And life? Life ends too, as we know – Ozeki has Ruth visit her non-believing mother’s unkempt grave just to reinforce the idea again – but, well, not yet. Maybe. At the end of her diary Nao is convinced she would recognise the reader she has been conjuring as she has written it, while Ruth frets about whether she has been blocking Nao’s very future…. But as the metafictions and metaphysics continue to be as entangled as ever the only thing they can be certain about is that nobody knows how it ends.

The end. Maybe.


4 Responses to A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

  1. Kim says:

    This is a great recap, and it’s made it quite obvious how much I missed when I read it. I found the Ruth sections quite boring, and I gave an inward grown every time a Nao section ended and one of hers began. As for Nao, I thought her story started off a bit slow (as a result, the whole book was difficult for me to get in to), but from almost the moment Nao’s grandmother entered the book, I was hooked. The last few chapters however, completely lost me. I read it a while ago, so the details are fuzzy, but I believe it was when the reader is led to believe that Ruth somehow altered Nao’s reality through her dreams??

  2. Helena Wang says:

    omg this site is my new religion.

  3. I really like your style of analysis/review in terms of how you comment on the novel while you’re reading it, and I especially like what you had to say about this book!
    I quite liked Ozeki’s writing style, but, oh my gosh, for me, this book was so pretentious that it was nauseating at some times lol. I still can’t forget when Ruth – the character – started crying because of how big the trees by her house were and ‘we’re just so small and meaningless in comparison’. I didn’t know whether I wanted to vomit or cry with her.
    Maybe your opinions about the book aren’t as cynic as mine after all, but I still really liked the comments that you made about it (particularly the part about how there was SO MUCH going on all the time and just about ALL OF IT was linked to each other in some way for some reason)!
    Consider me a fan!!! ^^

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