Sunday, March 31, 2013

A modern novel of compassion and contradiction - (Books - A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki)

A Hello Kitty lunchbox, a ziplock bag containing what first appears to be a volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, some letters written in Japanese, more writing in French,and an unusual wristwatch wash up on the shores of a small coastal town in British Columbia. Ruth, a writer, finds this treasure trove while on a walk on the beach and assumes them to be the detritus of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Proust volume turns out to be a diary written in English by a Japanese teenager named Nao.  Her father loses his job and Nao enters a new school where she is brutally bullied and they both contemplate ending their lives.  Meanwhile, Ruth is trying to finish writing a book about her mother, whom she cared for during her last years with dementia. As sometimes happens when you get stuck in writing, the diary ends up looking much more interesting than the subject she meant to be writing about, and Ruth gets pulled into Nao's world which becomes more real to her than her own. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being (Viking, 2013) plays with a few elements - narrative, time, and buddhism - yet it is a complex and rangy work.  I appreciate the copy sent to me by Viking/Penguin.

The storytelling is eminently readable.  The voicing of her characters is straightforward, if a little self-conscious.  Ozeki takes a risk with the diction of Nao, a 16-year-old writing a diary out of desperate loneliness, to an imagined sympathetic reader.
Ugh. That was dumb.  I'll have to do better. I bet you're wondering what kind of stupid girl would write words like that.

Well, I would.

Nao would.

Nao is me, Naoko Yasutani, which is my full name, but you can call me Nao because everyone else does.  And I better tell you a little more about myself if we're going to keep on meeting like this...! Emoji
 Actually, not much has changed.  I'm still sitting in this French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, and Edith Pilaf is singing another sad chanson, and Babette just brought me a coffee and I've taken a sip.  Babette is my maid and also my new fiend, and my coffee is Blue Mountain and I drink it black, which is unusual for a teenage girl, but it's definitely the way good coffee should be drunk if you have any respect for the bitter bean.

I have pulled up my sock and scratched behind my knee.

I have straightened my pleats so that they line up neatly on the tops of my thighs.
I have tucked my shoulder-length hair behind my right ear, which is pierced with five holes, but now I'm letting it fall modestly across my face again because the otaku4 salaryman who's sitting at the table next to me is staring, and it's creeping me out even though I find it amusing, too.
The form of the book is ordered, the reader always knows which narrative stream they are in, and yet the content has a certain messiness.  Nao's voice is a little bald, amateurish, a little embarrassing.  She apologizes, wondering if her reader will stay with her.  This is an example of the book's daring.  On the one hand, the character's prose is not so good that one admires it. The writer Nao (but really Ruth Ozeki), fears that her reader (the character Ruth, also a writer, but by extension the reader is really you or me) may not keep reading.  See what I mean by messy?  So Ozeki sets up an impossible relationship between writer and reader.  It is a relationship of intimacy between people who do not know each other.  It is also a truthful relationship that owns up to its own shortcomings.  'You may not like this, but hang with me - I need you to listen,' this narrative seemed to say.  And Ruth, the Reader is interested.  By extension then, my interest was also engaged and replied 'yes, this is a little awkward but I will hang with you.'  But this is just the sort of intimate relationship I long for in art.  The sense that the book, the painting, the music has been made just for me. That it reaches through the page, the canvas, the air, right to me in my here and now. Right to my private thoughts.  

Another theme explored here is that of time. This is the second novel I have read in a month, Dark Matter being the other, that has dealt with the idea of multiple universes.  Here is a young girl contemplating her death, writing in a book whose covers read Lost Time. She is writing in the past and a writer named Ruth reads her in the present.  Ruth gets so caught up in the story, that she is moved to reach out to her and help, forgetting that the story must have happened ten years earlier. At the same time, Ruth is stuck in her past (the book about her recently deceased mother) and needs help to re-inhabit her own present - help she finds in a girl's book about the past. A girl named Nao (Now - get it?).  Time lost.  Time regained.  

This is all aided by a third theme - buddhism.  Nao is sent by her parent to visit her 104-year-old great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun, whose role it is to connect Nao to her strength in the present, despite her suffering, through the ancient practices of buddhism. Ozeki, herself a buddhist priest, steeps us in buddhist philosophies and practices.  Multiple layers again. This is the aspect of the narrative that I found at times to be too overtly instructive.  
"I'm just thinking that if everything you're looking for disappears, maybe you should stop looking.  Maybe you should focus on what's tangible in the here and now."
Ozeki does indulge in some metafictional techniques such as email excerpts, and plentiful footnotes. The footnotes translate Japanese phrases.  Although I initially experienced this as a formal affectation, I found it purposeful in  a) orienting us in a different culture, b) slowing us down to appreciate the narrative in the moment - let's call this buddhist reading, and c) calling our attention to the narrative form.  This is a risk and could be distracting, but the form is itself the content.  Remember that the source material contains at least four different narrative sources in 3 different languages. Ozeki, in drawing our attention to the form, makes the narrative feel more of-a-piece.

I have described a number of bald, self-conscious narrative choices and interleaved complexity that could end up making this book sound unreadable and it is anything but.  It has earnest, home-made qualities that feel entirely appropriate to the plot, yet it is well integrated and subtly deft at creating imperfections in its characters which help engage the reader's sympathy.  It  skillfully exemplifies the buddhist embrace of contradiction in life: intimacy and distance, eastern and western, youth and age, written and electronic, now and then, violence and peace, war and conscience.  It is a narrative with a mission, a mission of compassion.

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