Call it determinism, call it yuanfen; whatever you call it, sometimes the world conspires to bind events together to show you a path. And after reading Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being, I am a bit more likely to believe that random events might not actually be so random. ATFTTB is a brilliant book that was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize just a few days ago. Though I haven’t read any of the other books on the list yet, I can already tell you that Ozeki deserves to win. Why?
Well, first a brief synopsis: former novelist Ruth (the character? the writer? someone in between?) finds a plastic bag containing a diary, letters and other items including a watch from WWII. Assuming the bag is a relic from the 2011 tsunami, she becomes obsessed with finding out about Nao, the young Japanese girl who wrote the diary, and has her own tortured history. Between Nao’s diary, Ruth’s own story, and letters from the past, a tale emerges that unites the characters as they each search for the truth.
Ozeki creates a work of metafiction that actually makes sense. I never really got metafiction…until Ruth Ozeki did metafiction. And wow does she do it right in A Tale for the Time Being. She reminds of us the relationship between reality and fiction, writer and reader, and creator and destroyer at almost every turn. And even when she takes a leap of faith that makes us choose between fact and fantasy, we follow and take the leap with her. I have never so happily suspended my disbelief because Ozeki knows just how far to go.
Second, she draws our attention to historical events such as 9/11 and the 2011 tsunami to point out the impact history has on the people close at hand and how those farther away perceive events in a very different way. She also incorporates very interesting cultural references that appealed (if they did at times disgust) to me. The scenes involving Nao’s classmates bullying her were deeply disturbing – including ostracizing her to the point that her classmates arranged her funeral in the classroom.
And finally, in ATFTTB, Ozeki writes tragic characters that we expect will end up with the likes of Hamlet and his mom, but ultimately offers them and ending more appropriate to both metafiction and redemption.
It’s a fantastic novel that blends social commentary, buddhism, literary theory, and it should be on your reading list for 2013.
Below are some of my favourite moments and my responses:
BOOK EXCERPT #1:
“I will write down everything I know about Jiko’s life in Marcel [Proust]’s book, and when I’m done, I’ll just leave it somewhere, and you will find it!” (Nao’s diary, page 26)
BOOK JACKET LETTER:
I can’t even begin to tell you the feeling I had reading these lines – this is exactly what I’m doing with Book Jacket Letters! Leaving little pieces of me in the books I’ve read, just as those books and characters leave their pieces on me. So far, I love this book!
BOOK EXCERPT #2:
“Time interacts with attention in funny ways.
At one extreme, when Ruth was gripped by the compulsive mania and hyperfocus of an Internet search, the hours seems to aggregate and swell like a wave, swallowing huge chunks of her day.
At the other extreme, when her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experiences time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like particles, diffused and suspended in standing water.” (page 91)
BOOK JACKET LETTER:
I love this passage. This is exactly what it feels like when I’m online, researching new ideas or I need to ‘quickly’ look something up. The couch could be on fire, but I’m only thinking that I have so little time to get all the possible information. Do you ever sit there and promise yourself, “only 20 minutes” and when you look up 3 hours have passed? Of course, it always happens at 10 pm, when you should be going to bed.
BOOK EXCERPT #3: When Nao is praying with her great grandmother’s juzu (prayer) beads
“I don’t know any prayers, so I just make them go round and round and say blessings in my head for all the things and people I love, and when I run out of things I love, I move on to the things I don’t hate too much, and sometimes I even discover that I can love the things I think I hate.” (page 386)
BOOK JACKET LETTER:
I don’t pray, but I actually think this is a pretty smart way to do it.
You definitely need to read this book!
- Ruth Ozeki’s “Tale for the Time Being” makes Man Booker Shortlist 2013 (vancouverobserver.com)
- Man Booker Shortlist Revealed! (nvcltopshelf.com)
- Know Your Booker!: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (bookermarks.wordpress.com)
- Man Booker 2013: Why this is the best shortlist in a decade (theguardian.com)