Shambhala Sun | July 2013
Lost in Time
A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING
By Ruth Ozeki
Viking 2013; 432 pp., $28.95 (cloth)
Reviewed by BRIAN BRETT
Inspired writers are the ones who walk sideways to what most
would consider the “real” world. At their best they can portray the confusion
that life is and make it feel more real than reality. Ruth Ozeki, a recently
ordained Zen priest, is still very much with this world, yet a spiritual
benevolence invests her novels with kindness.
In 1999 Ozeki wrote the bestselling My Year of Meats, a romp
through Japanese and american culture and an attack on the American beef
industry and its talent for scary hormones, such as DES, and feeding rendered
animal products to herbivores like beef cattle. It’s the story of an
androgynous six-foot-tall documentary filmmaker rescued from poverty by a job
directing a Japanese TV show, My American Wife. She soon learns, however, that
this show is not about shining a light on American culture but rather luring more
Japanese viewers into eating potentially tainted beef.
My Year of Meats integrates multiple viewpoints, fascinating
and sometimes flaky characters based on real people, and current political
issues. This previewed an approach that would grow through Ozeki’s ensuing
novels, All Over Creation and, now, A Tale for the Time Being.
All Over Creation tackles farming and genetic modification. A group of dedicated anti-GMO radicals who call themselves seeds and drive a
biofuel car they’ve named “Spudnick,” which they run on liberated McDonald’s
french-fry oil, move onto the farm of two traditional older farmers they
admire—Lloyd and Momoko Fuller. Momoko is suffering from Alzheimer’s and Lloyd
rapidly develops heart troubles. Their daughter, Yumi, moves back home to help
her parents, and soon the family is tangled up with corporate spies and the
nuttier fringes of the anti-GMO movement as they battle the dreaded Cyanco and
its NuLife potato.
In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki pulls out all the
stops with her new cast of beautiful, batty, and sad characters and a host of
worldwide issues. She immediately challenges the premises of fiction itself
when a character named Ruth finds some flotsam on the beach and takes it home
to her partner, Oliver, an eco-artist who sounds suspiciously like Ozeki’s
partner, Oliver Kellhammer. The flotsam is sealed in plastic bags within
plastic bags, all holding a sealed Hello Kitty lunchbox, which contains a “hacked”
copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The novel has been cut out and
replaced with blank pages filled with a Japanese student’s English-language
diary. Inside the lunchbox are also a number of letters in Japanese, a thin
composition book, and an old watch. It’s quite the time capsule, washed up on
the shores of Cortes Island, British Columbia, a year after the tsunami that
This gives Oliver an opportunity to explain the currents of
gyres, which are controlling the ecology of the Pacific Ocean, and further
explain the mechanics of the Turtle Gyre that probably brought the package. At
first Oliver is more device than human being; that is, he’s a vehicle for
explaining various scientific principles. The reader is intrigued, however, by
Oliver’s design and planting of a brilliantly peculiar eco-forest as a
scientific/ ecological/artistic experiment. He’s charming, but he doesn’t come
alive until toward the end of the novel.
The diary begins elegantly. “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a
time being. Do you know what a time being is?” We soon learn this is a being
who lives within time, which is moving quickly. In other words, we’re all time
beings. This was explained to Nao by her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko,
a Buddhist nun who in her younger years had been a novelist, a lover of men and
women, and an intellectual anarchist feminist politically active almost a
century ahead of her time.
The mood of the novel shifts quickly when Nao announces her
intended suicide. Nao spent a privileged childhood in the silicon dream of
California, where her father worked for a dot.com success and was its Japanese
wunderkind. but then came the dot.com bubble, and her father had unwisely
invested everything in the company before it went bust, or so he says. now
they’re back in Japan and he’s become a “house ghost,” so crushed he’s incapable of looking for work anymore. He’s
already “accidentally” fallen in front of a subway train and then been billed
for the subway’s rescue costs.
Meanwhile, Nao is spending her spare time in Akihabara, the
electronics and manga heart of tokyo, where many of the zany fads of Japan
arise. She has a fondness for the district’s French-maid cafés and describes
how at her favorite one the predominant color is pink, and frilly skirts and
push-up bras are the standard. In the entryway there’s a naked sculpture in a
fountain—the hot spot glowing. yes, mighty tacky, and every hostess has a
price. But the café is an escape for Nao. She’s being cruelly bullied in her
new school, and Ozeki explores this with fury, especially in one horrific scene
in which Nao’s classmates have a funeral for her.
The diary is just that—a diary written in the first person. But Ruth’s voyage of discovery is told in the third person. Trying to decipher Nao’s life, Ruth fears that Nao was lost in the tsunami of 2011 that killed more
than 29,000 people. Ozeki points out, chillingly, that the coast of Japan is
dotted with ancient stone markers that state: “Do not build your homes below
here.” Most of those markers were ignored in the last century. The 2011 tsunami
washed up to the base of several markers.
Bullying, poverty, tsunamis, suicide, child prostitution—A
Tale for the Time Being grows even more complex, widening out like the
confusing world we live in. The opening pages are awkward to read. Ozeki works
so hard to make Nao’s child-voice authentic that it seems boring and dumb, and
oliver’s initial deus ex machina appearances don’t help. Yet the novel grows
more fascinating within pages.
The eccentric characters of Ruth’s home island soon enrich
the novel, especially when they gather at the local post office. They are so
island, so funny. Cortes Island, like a few of the san Juan islands and some of Canada’s other Gulf Islands, has a classic island atmosphere, where hippies,
rough-and-ready oyster fishermen and loggers, and the retired wealthy with
their beachfront mansions collide. Ozeki manages to have fun with the community
of Cortes Island—rednecks and philosophers alike—yet with a gentle fondness. It’s a rich picture but it isn’t cruel.
The novel keeps growing richer, especially with the
appearance of Jiko, who has become a ghost in Japanese history, a ghost that
even disappears on rRuth’s computer screen. One day Ruth finds one mention of
Jiko on the internet, but by the next day that mention has disappeared
permanently, and this is where the novel takes a mystical turn, and we start
encountering quantum mechanics and a magical raven.
Better still, we discover the austere yet rich world of
monastery life. The ancient dying Jiko proves to be one of the most magnificent
Zen creations I've encountered, on a level with some of the masters glimpsed in
the writings of Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen. She’s a caricature and yet
so perfect a caricature, so simple and beautiful, that she is invested with
life and warmth and devious humor, and the pages glow whenever she appears.
At this point the novel takes another twist. We discover
that suicidal tendencies run in Nao’s family, and the composition book found in
the Hello Kitty lunchbox belonged to Nao’s great uncle, who was a Heidegger
disciple cruelly “volunteered” as a kamikaze pilot in WWII. He wrote his last
notes in French so they would be somewhat safe from the prying eyes of his
Nao learns that this quiet man recognized that he couldn’t
kill, so he vowed to steer his plane into the waves at the fatal moment. In an
odd way, this tragic passage gives inspiration to both Nao and her troubled
father. He realizes how terribly he has abandoned his daughter and wife and
attempts to turn his life around, while at the same time we realize that he was
actually fired from his cushy job because he was attempting to sabotage his
computer programs that would be used for drone killing and various other kinds
of hi-tech warfare.
While I won’t reveal what ultimately happens to nNo, her
father, Jiko, and Ruth, I will say that each of these characters is invested
with life. It’s a quirky, deep, occasionally hilarious, and occasionally
depressing montage of a novel. A sneaky charmer.
Its only serious flaw, aside from the clunky
characterization of Nao and Oliver at the beginning, is that it’s a bit of a
jumble and all the leaps aren’t smooth. I would have liked a little tighter
editing. For instance, as part of an explanation of events, we are given a
too-long lecture by Oliver on Schrodinger’s cat (a famous physics problem) and
quantum physics. It’s a clumsy attempt to over-explain information appearing
and disappearing in the novel. But this is a mystery that doesn’t need to be
tidily tied up.
Still, A Tale for the Time Being is such a romp—so unafraid
of the disasters of life, so full of delight—that it’s well worth the read.
Forget the easy escape route of quantum mechanics; the novel more than supplies
enough old-fashioned reading magic.
Brian Brett is
the author of thirteen
books of poetry, fiction,
and memoir, including
the prize-winning Trauma Farm and
the recently released Wind River Variations.
According to Brett, his novel, Coyote, A
Mystery, might or
might not be (as
Salman Rushdie would say) the story of an
ecoterrorist who’s an
incarnation of Hotei,
the Laughing Buddha.
Brett lives with his
wife, Sharon, on Salt
Spring Island, British
Columbia, where they
farm garlic, pussy
willows, and eggs.
Collage by Megumi Yoshida / Source print by Katsushika Hokusai