A Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
422 pp.; $27.95 cloth
“The time being” is an English translation of the Japanese word uji, which is the title of a short piece of writing about time, by the 13th-century Zen master and poet Eihei Dogen. The time being is deep time, as opposed to linear, chronological time. The time being is a kind of eternal present. A time being is also a being who lives in time, who is alive, and who will therefore die.
Ruth Ozeki, an American Japanese and a longtime Zen practitioner, begins the novel with an epigraph from Uji, and the book can be read as one long commentary on Dogen. I say this as one who loves Dogen’s writings, but it’s not so important. Readers need not know anything at all about Dogen.
This is a book about the mysteries of time, how layers of time blend together, how time hurries by and slows down. It’s about our time, this big time we are all living in, this time of tsunamis, climate change, species extinction, undeclared war, Internet technology. And it’s about this time right now, this moment of hearing a crow calling on a branch, a moment that’s gone already. It’s about time past, the history we think we know about—World War II, for example—and about memory, and how when we look back and remember, or when we read journals and letters from the past, the layers of time get squashed together in the time being. Everything exists at once. Everything that has happened, or could have happened, all possibilities are present now.
Stories are nested within stories in this large novel, like Russian dolls. Stories reflect stories, as in a hall of mirrors.
The frame story is about a novelist named Ruth, who lives with her husband, Oliver, a tree-planting environmental artist, on Cortes Island in Canada’s Pacific Northwest, and who, we are told, is struggling with writer’s block and trying to finish a memoir that she’s been working on for years. Ruth Ozeki, the author, also happens to live with her husband, Oliver, on Cortes Island.
Ruth finds a package—a plastic freezer bag encrusted with barnacles—washed up on the beach. It contains a diary written in English, along with a batch of old letters in Japanese and French, and a kamikaze pilot’s watch. Ruth and Oliver think the package may be part of the flotsam that has just begun to wash up on the island’s beaches after the tsunami of 2011.
Ruth begins to read the diary. And so, nested inside Ruth’s story is the story of a teenage girl in Tokyo named Nao (pronounced, significantly, “now”) Yasutani, who writes about her depressed unemployed father’s suicide attempts, and about being brutally bullied at school. From early childhood, Nao grew up in Sunnyvale, California, where her father had a good job as a computer programmer, but when he was laid off, they moved back to Japan, where he feels humiliated by his inability to find a job. Nao, for her part, is tortured by her schoolmates as an outsider, as “Transfer Student Yasutani,” and torture is not too strong a word for what she experiences: biting, cutting, cigarette burns on her flesh. Not surprisingly, she contemplates suicide herself.
The pages of Nao’s diary are bound inside an old book cover: À la recherche du temps perdu, Par Marcel Proust. Nao is looking into the past, too. She writes about her beloved great grandmother, “old Jiko,” who, she thinks, is the only person who understands her. Jiko, still alive at the age of 104, is a Zen Buddhist nun, abbess of an ancient temple on the coast of Japan in Miyagi prefecture near Fukushima, the power plant that will melt down a decade later. Jiko’s wise old voice is threaded through Nao’s diary.
Speaking of her plans to commit suicide, Nao says that very soon she is “going to graduate from time,” but she’s not going to do it until she’s written down Jiko’s life story. Another nesting doll.
Nao finds some relief from her loneliness by writing in cafés, addressing herself to an unknown “you” who, she hopes, will some time in the future read her words and understand her. “I will write down everything I know about Jiko’s life in Marcel’s book, and when I’m done, I’ll just leave it somewhere, and you will find it. How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!”
Ruth is that “you,” though Nao doesn’t know it. Ruth reads the diary about ten years after Nao wrote it, but she feels intimately connected with her in the present.
The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary and Ruth’s life. But Ruth’s life doubles back on Nao’s as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the diary. Instead of working on her memoir, she turns detective, with Oliver’s help. She spends hours on the Internet searching for the people mentioned in the diary. They want to know: Did Nao kill herself? Did she survive the tsunami?
I cared about Nao, I wanted to know, too, and I turned the pages eagerly, following Ruth as the narrative goes backward in time to include the mysterious story of old Jiko’s son, a kamikaze pilot. There are surprising discoveries along the way, and some long-ago acts of heroism are revealed in old letters.
Ozeki’s unusual combination of fiction and nonfiction purposely asks the question: What is real, anyway? From a novelist’s point of view, nonfiction is an appropriately negative word for “what really happened.” Because there’s no such thing. Or if there is, we can’t know it for sure. In an artful inversion, Nao’s story is told in the first person, while Ruth’s story is told in the third person, as if Nao is the author and Ruth the fictional character. At one point Ruth wonders, “Who conjured whom?”
Ozeki quotes Proust: “Every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self . . . The reader’s recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth.” By this measure, this book is true.
After my mother died, I was sorting through family archives in the attic of the house that had been in my family for five generations. Most of the collections of letters and photos I had pored over before, but there was a surprise, in a box I’d never looked into. It was a letter from my grandfather, written during World War I, when he was an officer stationed in army headquarters somewhere in Europe, in relative safety miles from the terrible trenches.
This was before he married my grandmother. The letter, on army stationery, was addressed to a commanding officer, so it’s a mystery how it found its way into our attic. At the time of writing, Grandpa had no idea of ever becoming “Grandpa,” no idea that I would be reading this letter 90 years later, while cleaning out the attic following the death of his yet-to-be-born daughter at the age of 84. This is the time being. This is all time happening at once.
Grandpa wrote of his grief at learning that a good friend of his, who was a husband and father, had died at the front. He spoke of his friend’s wife and children, who were left without support. He said he was a bachelor, with no dependent family, and he begged, eloquently, to trade places with a man at the front who did have a family, so that that man’s family wouldn’t have to suffer as his friend’s family did.
When my two sisters and I were little girls, we used to play soldier with Grandpa, with sticks over our shoulders for rifles, and he would march us up and down the lawn, calling out: “Left right left right, halt, about face!” It was fun. I loved Grandpa, but as an adult, I had been inwardly critical of his conservative politics, his super-patriotism, his old-fashioned, dogmatic values.
The letter made me cry. I saw his passionate, generous heart. I saw how he held his life, like a bodhisattva, willing to give it away to save other beings from suffering. And he had died, of course, but not then; it was about 50 years later, on a commuter train, of a heart attack. That was far in the future for him. And far in the past for me, reading his letter in the attic. I saw him differently, but couldn’t tell him so.
This book is large and full of heart. It asks the important questions. What does it really mean to be a human being? To be alive and know you’re going to die? How do we understand the cruelty human beings are capable of inflicting on each other? How do we have the courage to keep planting trees, as Oliver does, when the forests are being devastated around us?
What moves me most of all is the way Ozeki explores intimate human relationships, and how people manage to love each other in the midst of their suffering. The central relationships of the novel are nuanced, changing, heart-wrenching, and fiercely loving: between Nao and her father, between Nao and her greatgrandmother Jiko, between Jiko and her kamikaze pilot son, and between Ruth and Oliver. Ozeki writes courageously about what is clearly her own nonfictional marriage. Perhaps some of the incidents are invented for the novel, but the nature of the relationship is real. Misunderstandings crop up between the understated Oliver and the emotional Ruth, and then are untangled and clarified by love, by loyalty. They live in a wild place beset by wild storms, and they make it a home together.
The relationship at the very center of the book is that between Ruth and Nao, who reflect and love each other without ever meeting. They help each other discover themselves as time beings, alive in time. They help each other—and me, too—wake up to the present moment.
Writing about her childhood in Sunnyvale, California, Nao remembers:
I used to sit in the back seat of our Volvo station wagon . . . and I kept the window open so the hot, dry, smoggy haze could blow on my face while I whispered Now! . . . Now! . . . Now! . . . over and over, faster and faster, into the wind as the world whipped by, trying to catch the moment when the word was what it is: when now became NOW.
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