With her superb third novel about to arrive in bookstores, does Ruth Ozeki think of herself as creating a body of work, an oeuvre, so to speak?
“I’ve never had the temerity to think that,” Ozeki says during a call that reaches her while she is in transit from Toronto, where she has been visiting her in-laws, to her home nestled amongst 20 acres of rainforest on Cortes Island, British Columbia. “A body needs four limbs. And a head,” she notes, laughing. “Now that I have three novels and two films that I’m proud of, I am beginning to think, wow, maybe before I die it will be possible to have something that could be called a body.”
But asked then to characterize the common concerns that link one book to another, Ozeki demurs. “I wouldn’t ever want to approach it from the outside like that. What’s important to me is the integrity of the book I’m currently writing. Maybe the notion of a body of work is something that’s applied afterward by other people.”
Good point. But Ozeki’s widely praised first and second novels—My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003)—do share common threads with A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki’s best and most adventurous novel to date. First there is a common flare of vivid storytelling. And, as a very close second, all of her novels delve provocatively into history, raise concerns about the fate not just of her human characters but of the Earth itself, and play with profound philosophical questions.
As the title of the new book suggests, one of the questions Ozeki explores here is what it means to live in the present. The book began in her imagination, she says, when the voice of a young girl spoke the words that are now the opening lines of the novel: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being.” Nao (pronounced Now) is the sweet, chatty, troubled Japanese teenager whose diary washes up on the shores of Cortes Island sometime after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011.
“I was intrigued by
. . . this idea that we are all time beings, that time is our medium.”
“Nao was persistent and she was distinctive and she just kept showing up and saying the most outrageous things,” Ozeki says of the origins of the novel. “And I was intrigued by this idea of a ‘time being’ and this idea that we are all time beings, that time is our medium.”
Over the course of the book, Nao becomes a fully realized character in part because Ozeki is well acquainted with Japanese culture. She grew up in New Haven, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. After college she worked and attended graduate school in Japan and, later, traveled back and forth to Tokyo while directing documentary-style programs for a Japanese company. She and her husband, Oliver Kellhammer, a Canadian land artist and writer, returned to Tokyo during the composition of this novel to get a feel for the city’s Akihabara Electric Town, the flashy shopping district where her character Nao hangs out in a somewhat creepy maids café writing in her diary and fending off unwanted advances from inept nerds.
“The voice and character of Nao were never a problem,” Ozeki says. “But I knew that Nao needed a reader. In some ways this book is also about the relationship between a writer and a reader. I auditioned four or five characters for the role of reader and wrote complete drafts of the book. I tried all sorts of different people.” None of them worked.
Then after the 2011 tsunami, Ozeki returned to an early storytelling impulse she had first rejected. “I’ve always had this semi-autobiographical relationship with some of my characters,” she says, “and Oliver and I were talking about this one day, and he said, you need to step out from behind the veil of fiction and be in your book.”
So the character who discovers and reads Nao’s diary; the character who worries and frets about Nao as the teenager describes her suicidal father, her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, and her own despairing thoughts about her life; the character who meditates on the riddle of Nao’s ultimate fate is a version of Ruth Ozeki herself.
“We’re living in a time when the membrane between fiction and nonfiction is quite permeable,” Ozeki says, explaining her audacious narrative choice. “The distinctions are falling away, and I think that’s because of the Internet. Everyone has an avatar now, or multiple avatars. We’re always fictionalizing ourselves and everyone understands this now. Every person we talk to brings out a different facet of ourselves. In this case, the Ruth who stepped forward was drawn out by Nao’s particular voice.”
But the choice to put a version of herself in the novel had implications for others around her, especially her husband. “I said to Oliver, well, if I’m going to be in the book you have to be in the book, too. He said that’s a good plot experiment. Go for it. Now he’s a little nervous. His concern about the Oliver character is that I’ve made him smarter than he is,” she says, laughing.
Like her character Ruth, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist, and the concepts of her practice permeate, unobtrusively, the novel. Ozeki was ordained as a Zen priest in June 2010. She is associated with the Brooklyn Zen Center, and spends part of each year in New York City, where she has maintained an apartment in the East Village for more than 20 years.
“I started practicing Zen seriously when my father died, when things were really falling apart in my life. I got more and more serious about it as I was taking care of my mother when she had Alzheimer’s. When she died I thought a lot about succession. We don’t have children, so in a way, I don’t have a future. I’d been practicing Zen and I just realized I want to be a part of a lineage, a tradition, and help keep the practice alive and flourishing in the world. So I decided to ordain.”
Ruth’s and Nao’s separate but interconnected lives play out against a background of large-scale human suffering—the tsunami, 9/11 and the legacies of World War II.
“That’s certainly my experience of my life,” Ozeki says, “that there are these huge catastrophic events, one after the other. Each one is seismic and each shifts the ground on which we stand. My feeling is that fiction is where we process this. It’s where I try to make some sense of these kinds of events. Otherwise it’s just one damned thing after another.”
Yet, strangely enough, there is nothing particularly bleak about Ozeki’s novel. Part of that is due to her sly, often Zen-like sense of humor. “There’s almost a slapstick quality to Zen humor. It’s disarming. Literally. Because the whole point of Zen is to take away your armament, to sort of make you put down your defensive weapons. And feel things.”
And that happens to be an apt description of the impact of A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that is both disarming and likely to leave readers feeling its emotional impact for a long time to come.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
In Tokyo, shy, bullied 16-year-old Nao determines to end it all--but not before chronicling the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. After the 2011 tsunami, a novelist named Ruth opens a Hello Kitty lunchbox that's fetched up on a remote island off North America's coast and is immediately drawn into the story of Nao and her ancestor. Ozeki lives part-time in British Columbia and was recently ordained a Buddhist nun, so in some ways she's writing close to home. But here's betting that this award-winning novelist (My Year of Meats), also honored for her work in film, will take her narrative to the next level while remaining engagingly accessible; the best-selling Meats was translated into 11 languages and sold in 14 countries. Sales rep enthusiasm, too.[Page 58]. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Ozeki's beautifully crafted work, which arrives a decade after her last novel, All Over Creation, strives to unravel the mystery of a 16-year-old Japanese American girl's diary found washed ashore in Whaletown, British Columbia. Born in Sunnyvale, CA, Nao logs her diary entries from Japan since her father returned the family there following the burst of the dot-com bubble. Ozeki creates a host of colorful tales surrounding Nao and her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, and great uncle Haruki, who was a kamikaze pilot in World War II. Meanwhile, in Canada, author Ruth and her husband, Oliver, are reading Nao's entries in the year 2012, wondering whether the diary is debris from the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, and whether Nao is still alive. VERDICT Ozeki adeptly intertwines past and present while weaving bits of history into her stories. Topics such as bullying, politics, depression, suicidal tendencies, and Buddhism are explored throughout, and as in previous novels, Ozeki validates her gift for writing prose that raises thought-provoking issues for readers to ponder long after finishing the book. [See Prepub Alert, 9/24/12.]--Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA[Page 76]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Ozeki's absorbing third novel (after All Over Creation) is an extended meditation on writing, time, and people in time: "time beings." Nao Yasutani is a Japanese schoolgirl who plans to "drop out of time"--to kill herself as a way of escaping her dreary life. First, though, she intends to write in her diary the life story of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun. But Nao actually ends up writing her own life story, and the diary eventually washes up on the shore of Canada's Vancouver Island, where a novelist called Ruth lives. Ruth finds the diary in a freezer bag with some old letters in French and a vintage watch. Ruth's investigation into how the bag traveled from Japan to her island, and why it contains what it does, alternates with Nao's chapters. The characters' lives are finely drawn, from Ruth's rustic lifestyle to the Yasutani family's straitened existence after moving from Sunnyvale, Calif., to Tokyo. Nao's winsome voice contrasts with Ruth's intellectual ponderings to make up a lyrical disquisition on writing's power to transcend time and place. This tale from Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest, is sure to please anyone who values a good story broadened with intellectual vigor. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Literary Agency. (Mar. 12)[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC