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Ruth Ozeki opens her third novel, "A Tale for the Time Being," with a small deception — or, more accurately, a sleight of hand.
Forgoing context or explanation, she plunges us into the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao. The language is excitable, breathless even: "(I)f you decide to read on," Nao exclaims, "then guess what? You’re my kind of time being and together we’ll make magic!"
"A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING"
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Publisher: Viking, $28.95
Yet just as we start to wonder what we’re getting into, Ozeki flips the whole thing around. There is a section break, and when Nao returns she is tougher, far more pointed. "Ugh," she sniffs. "That was dumb. I’ll have to do better. I bet you’re wondering what kind of stupid girl would write words like that."
The point, of course, is that we are all more than one person, one perspective, that identity is in a constant state of flux. But even more, Ozeki’s move telegraphs that the book is going to play with our preconceptions, that it will shift on us, turn on us, that it will be as difficult to pin down as a wisp of smoke.
All of that is true of "A Tale for the Time Being," which is why (let’s not be coy) it’s such an exquisite novel: funny, tragic, hard-edged and ethereal at once.
The book is constructed around a pair of interlocking narratives: Nao’s diary, which is really more of an extended suicide note; and the story of Ruth, a novelist who lives on Vancouver Island and one day finds washed up on the beach a package containing the diary and other artifacts. This allows "A Tale for the Time Being" to find resolution in an unflinching resistance to being resolved. As Ruth observes in the closing pages, "I really thought I would know by now. I thought if I finished the diary, the answers would be there or I could figure it out, but they weren’t, and I can’t. It’s really frustrating."
The frustration has to do with Ruth’s inability to verify Nao’s story, or even to uncover any external trace of her (or the people about whom she writes). Further complicating matters is the girl’s curious lack of a digital footprint, which means any attempt at confirmation is open-ended, incomplete. What’s compelling about "A Tale for the Time Being," however, is that it uses this uncertainty to push below the surface, to make a series of unexpected links.
It’s no coincidence that the life of Ruth the character mirrors that of her creator, for Ozeki wants us to think about the boundary between fact and fiction, between what we know and what we project. Like Nao, Ruth is many people: an author, a character, a daughter, a wife. Like her, she exists equally in the world and in the imagination, a conundrum Ozeki makes explicit by having both of them write.
Writing, after all, offers a way to give shape to experience, to pin down what Ruth’s husband Oliver calls "(t)he eternal now." And yet, if as Ruth suggests, "writing was about immortality. Defeating death, or at least forestalling it," the truth is that death, or even just the future, comes to us regardless. There is no forestalling anything.
"Life is fleeting!" Ruth proclaims, "Don’t waste a single moment of your precious life! … Wake up now! … And now! … And now!" The exhortation comes by way of 13th-century Zen master Dogen, who divided each day into more than 6 billion moments to remind himself of the importance of remaining present and engaged. Nao (pronounced "now," one of a series of double meanings) invokes him, also, as do a number of other characters, including her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun, and the old woman’s son Haruki, a reluctant kamikaze who died during World War II.
In some sense this establishes Dogen — or his ideas, anyway — as a leitmotif, a warning about the dangers of distraction, to which both Ruth and Nao fall prey. But even more, his presence helps create a fictional universe in which the two story lines can come together, not because one can ever verify the other, but because their journeys are fundamentally the same.
Both Nao and Ruth are faced with complex puzzles: for the former, the question of her own existence, and for the latter, a memoir of her late mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, on which she has been working for 10 years. Both are trapped by old ways of thinking, old ways of seeing, by the weight of their respective pasts.
What Dogen offers is a way to reconsider, to frame time not as trap, but liberation, to see in its evanescence something of the freedom they seek. That’s the source of the novel’s title, the idea that they, that all of us, are "time beings" — that is, beings who live in time for the time being, another double meaning that gets to the heart of what Ozeki has in mind.
A Zen priestess herself, she has written something of a Buddhist novel, fueled by an abiding sense of paradox. This is most clearly represented by Haruki, whose thoughts on mortality ("Time is so interesting to me now that I have so little of it") and consequence ("You could even say that the very outcome of this war will be decided by a moment and a millimeter. … But how am I to know?") illuminate the book like a quiet flame.
To develop these ideas still further, Ozeki brings in dreams and meditations on physics and ocean currents, as well as a computer "spider" that literally erases people from the data stream. "A Tale for the Time Being" ends with a riff on quantum theory and the concept of multiple worlds — a framework in which anything that can happen will happen, which means the universe is constantly branching into exponentially expanding parallel realities.
That’s heady stuff, but it hangs together for a couple of reasons: the exuberance of Ozeki’s writing, the engaging nature of her characters and, not least, her scrupulous insistence that it doesn’t have to hang together, that even as she ties up loose ends, others come unbound.
Or, as Ruth the character asserts when her husband asks whether, in this world, she is happy, "Yes, I suppose I am. At least for now."
Page Turners highlights books by Hawaii authors and books about Hawaii or of interest to Hawaii readers. To submit a book for consideration, send a copy and information to Features Department, 500 Ala Moana Blvd. Suite 7-210, Honolulu, HI 96813. For more information, email email@example.com.
"A Straight Road with 99 Curves: Coming of Age on the Path of Zen," by Gregory Shepherd (Stone Bridge Press, $14.95; also e-book): A memoir by the music professor at Kauai Community College, who originally came to Hawaii to join a Zen Buddhist community in 1971. The book traces his path from believer to cynic and back again to Buddhism to achieve inner peace.
"Aloha for the Heart & Soul: Hawai‘i’s Gift to the World," by Waimea Williams (Island Heritage, $12.95): This small, copiously illustrated book might be better suited to malihini than to kamaaina as it attempts to describe the many meanings of the all-purpose Hawaiian greeting.
"Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami," by Gretel Ehrlich (Pantheon Books, $25; also e-book): The heralded travel writer and essayist, a lifelong student of Japanese culture, bears witness to those who live and work on the Tohoku coast and survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
"Saving Paradise," by Mike Bond (Mandevilla Press, $15.99; also e-book): The Molokai author takes on Hawaii’s seamy corporate and political side as a special operations forces veteran looks into the mysterious drowning of a journalist off Waikiki.
"Japanese Eyes American Heart: Voices from the Home Front in World War II Hawaii, Volume II," compiled by the Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board (Watermark Publishing, $24.95): The first volume gathered the stories of nisei soldiers; this volume presents personal recollections of what Hawaii’s Japanese community went through during the war.
"What the Witch Doctor Taught Me: Shining God’s Light into Thailand’s Dark Tribal Villagers," by Elaine Olelo Masters (Tate Publishing, $18.99; also e-book): A Hawaii writer recounts her adventures serving as a missionary for more than 30 years in this forthright but not preachy book.