by Dave Wheeler
Months ago, I received a copy of Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, A Tale For The Time Being. I started to read it before her event here, back in March. It’s a gorgeous dialog between a diary from Japan and its Canadian reader, with lots of footnotes — sort of a voyeuristic metanarrative that transcends the Pacific Ocean. I’m still reading it. Because I started it so many weeks ago, and I can usually get through a novel in two weeks or so, it sometimes feels like I’ve been reading Time Being forever.
But Ozeki’s book is incredible. And her event was spectacular! She was one of the most engaging authors to hear, and she read in the best way — with voices! — embellishing the shifts in narrative between young diarist Yasutani Naoko (or Nao, for short) in Akiba Electricity Town, Tokyo, and the writer’s-blocked novelist in British Columbia who finds the girl’s journal after the 2011 tsunami, Ruth Ozeki.
I started the book, and then abandoned it until June. It’s unfortunate, but it happens sometimes. I’m trying to be better about returning to books I’ve started, though. Sometimes you’re not quite ready for a book, but a mere few months later you will be.
Honestly, I couldn’t stop admiring the book’s cover. And I loved her reading of the centenarian, anarchist, Buddhist nun, and great grandmother to Nao, Jiko. So since the beginning of June I’ve returned to A Tale For The Time Being.
Each character muses on the effect of time — Nao, Jiko, Ruth, and her husband Oliver — as all their stories unfold. The blend of philosophy and intergenerational relationships reminds me a little of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but Ozeki develops a fascinating tension between Eastern and Western philosophies as Nao gravitates toward Jiko while her father, Haruki, becomes enamoured of Western philosophers on his spiral toward suicide.
My favorite line of Jiko’s is, “Up, down, same thing.” Nao finds this inane and argues, “No, it’s not the same thing.” To which Jiko responds, “You are right. Not same.” Then adds, “Not different, either.”
I think I like it so much because I often think, “Read, unread, same thing.” In my mind, I’m reading books constantly, whether they’re in front of me or not. Of course, there are reviews and interviews that I read that inform what I’m reading and not reading, but then there’s the idea that a really good book is one you keep mulling over, even after you turn the last page. I read Moby Dick almost six years ago, but I still marvel over it.
Ozeki mesmerizes. Her characters are some of the most personable I’ve read — Nao’s confessional style wavers from pensive to self-critical in a pitch-perfect essence of adolescence; Ruth becomes overly attached to the girl and her thoughts, though they’ve never met and she’s unsure Nao even exists; Oliver’s naturalistic sense of the cosmos parries Ruth’s need for narrative arc and closure; Jiko’s flawed nobility balances perfectly with Haruki’s noble flaws.
If you think about the peaks and valleys your own middle school diaries covered over the course of a year or two, you’ll get a good sense of everything Nao goes through as she tries to keep her family together and to learn the peaceful Buddhism her great grandmother exudes.
I feel like I’ve been reading this book forever, but in a really cool Zen way. Ruth Ozeki is a superb writer, with a powerful sense of voice, a realized sense of place. And it doesn’t hurt that as our weather in the past couple weeks has spanned from hot and sunny to cool and misty, so have the scenes in A Tale For The Time Being. This is a book I’m going to be reading for a long time into the future. Reading, not reading — same thing.