A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


This rich and complex novel has a deceptively simple mechanism to unfold the plot and explore ideas. A writer named Ruth lives with her husband Oliver on an island on the west coast of Canada. She finds a diary, letters, and a watch that had washed ashore, apparently from Japan. The diary was written by a 16-year-old girl named Nao who had returned to Japan with her parents after growing up in California. Her father had been a brilliant programmer but had lost his job and times were very hard in Tokyo on every front.

The story alternates between Nao's lively diary and Ruth's ruminations on it and her own life on the island. Ruth and Oliver lead the quiet life; she is a successful novelist, but is stalled on her memoir. Years before she had agreed to leave New York as Oliver wished to live this isolated existence. The odd assortment of islanders who feel free to drop in seem to jangle Ruth's nerves. Ruth Ozeki is married to Oliver; I don't know how much more of the story is autobiographical.

Nao's story is intense and sometimes excruciatingly sad but is jarringly told using California-Girl-Speak. The diary she wrote in was originally a copy of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past with blank pages replacing the text. She writes with teenage angst, but has real suffering in her life.

    But what can I write about that's real? Sure, I can write about all the bad shit that's happened to me, and my feelings about my dad and my mom and my so-called friends, but I don't particularly want to. Whenever I think about my stupid empty life, I come to the conclusion that I'm just wasting my time, and I'm not the only one. Everybody I know is the same, except for old Jiko. Just wasting time, killing time, feeling crappy.

    And what does it mean to waste time anyway? If you waste time is it lost forever?

    And if time is lost forever, what does that mean? It's not like you get to die any sooner, right? I mean, if you want to die sooner, you have to take matters into your own hands.

And later she writes:

    Weird, right? I mean, there I was sitting in a French maid café in Akiba, thinking about lost time, and old Marcel Proust was sitting in France a hundred years ago, writing a whole book about the exact same subject, So maybe his ghost was lingering between the covers and hacking into my mind, or maybe it was just a crazy coincidence, but either way, how cool is that?  I think coincidences are cool, even if they don't mean anything, and who knows?  Maybe they do! I'm not saying everything happens for a reason. It was more just that it felt as if me and old Marcel were on the same wavelength.

It is a teenager's voice. If this grates on you, perhaps this book is not for you.

The "old Jiko" mentioned above is her great-grandmother, a 100+ year old nun in a Buddhist temple in the mountains. During the summer she spent with Jiko she learns to sit zazen, learns she has "supapawa!", and we begin to hear the story of Jiko's son who was forced to be a kamakaze pilot in the war. He wrote letters in French to his mother so she would know the truth about his service.

Meanwhile Ruth is coping with a storm that swept over the island, words disappearing from the pages of the diary, finding a French-speaking Canadian to translate the pilot's letters, the disappearance of Oliver's beloved cat Pesto, and the appearance of more chapters in the diary.  And then we get into quantum physics which Ruth (helpfully?) tells us describes the behavior of matter and energy on a microscopic level.  Ruth says that she did know about Schrödinger's cat:

But, if pressed, she would have to confess that the name Schrödinger always made her feel vaguely anxious, in much the same way that the name Proust did. She firmly believed she ought to have learned about the former's cat and read the latter's opus, but she hadn't quite gotten around to either.

This charming confession makes her an appealing character.

Schrödinger put his theoretical cat into a theoretical box with a lethal toxin which would be released if certain conditions were met. Oliver explained that 

…if cats behaved like subatomic particles, the cat would be both alive and dead, simultaneously, so long as the box remains closed and we don't know if the conditions have been met. But at the very moment an observer opens the box to look inside and measure the conditions, he would find the cat either dead or alive….What Schrödinger was trying to illustrate is sometimes called the observer paradox. It's a problem that crops up when you're trying to measure the behavior of very small things, like subatomic particles. Quantum physics is weird. On a subatomic level, a single particle can exist as an array of possibilities, in many places at once.

And he goes on to say, they can only exist as an array as long as no one is looking. When observation occurs, the particle exists in only one of its possible locations. Ruth and Oliver go on in this vein for some time, mentioning Heisenberg, Bohr and the Copenhagen Interpretation, Hugh Everett, and making connections with Dogen Zenji, a zen Buddhist from the 13th century. 

Ultimately I found this a satisfying book: a complex storyline that held my interest and ideas that were complicated enough to make my head hurt. What more could you want?

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being, Viking Adult, 2013, 432 pages (I read the Kindle version).

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