Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

In A Tale for the Time Being author Ruth Ozeki inserts herself as a character in her novel. This narrative device works because Ozeki is quite interesting herself: she's an indie film maker, an award winning novelist and a Zen Buddhist priest. Born in 1956 in New Haven, Connecticut to a Japanese mother and an American father, Ozeki has lived and worked in both the USA and Japan. She currently resides in New York City and on the remote island in Canada, where her novel/memoir is set.

In the book's opening, Ozeki discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed onto the beach. Inside are letters in antiquated Japanese, a French composition book, a wind-up watch and a diary written mostly in English. The narrative alternates between the journal entries and Ozeki's search for the 16-year-old Japanese girl who wrote the diary. Humorous anecdotes about living on a remote island in Canada make it easier to get through a story of abuse and neglect. Like Ruth, I kept turning the pages to learn what happened to Nao, pronounced and symbolically "now."

"Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction to the reader's eye. Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin."

Nao grew up in California, but after the dot com bubble burst, she returned with her impoverished parents to Tokyo. At school she is bullied for being too American, and even her teacher does nothing to stop the harassment. In Japan there is a word for ritual bullying: ijime. Nao's father is too depressed and her mother too overworked to help her. The only person who reaches out to Nao is her Aunt Jiko, an 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun. The best part is the summer that Nao spends with Jiko at her temple.
"Have you ever bullied a wave?" Jiko asked me at the beach. 
Stylistically, A Tale for the Time Being is an unusual mix of fact and fiction. There are footnotes and appendixes explaining Japanese terms, Zen Buddhism, western philosophy and even Quantum Mechanics. In sharp contrast to this academic approach, Ozeki tosses in a bit of magical realism. It's an odd juxtaposition, but she makes it work in a way that reminded me of Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite authors. Like Murakami, Ozeki is fascinated with the seedy underworld and uses surreal devices to flip between contemporary Japan and horrific scenes from World War II. Cats and occasionally birds play pivotal roles. However, Ozeki's personal blend of memoir and fiction makes her work original.

Given all the stereotyping of Japanese women in western literature, I loved these lines from Nao's first journal entry:
"Everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap. So if kinky nasty things are your pleasure, please close this book and give it to your wife or co-worker and save yourself a lot of time and trouble."
A Tale for the Time Being is an important addition to the emerging genre of Bully Lit. Too many stories about bullying have fairytale endings in which the bully is justly punished or realizes the errors of his/her ways, but this novel offers no clean resolution. Instead, Ozeki draws a parallel between schoolroom bullying in 2000 and Japan's treatment of young kamikaze soldiers in the 1940s. By linking bullying to wartime atrocities, the author gives broader meaning and cultural context to the issue.

As a victim of childhood bullying myself, if not nearly as severe, I found Ozeki's novel only too believable. Reading a book like this back then would have helped me cope, although the scenes of child prostitution, torture and sexual deviancy mark this book as adult literary fiction. Nothing is gratuitous or titillating, but it was still hard to read. I had to take restorative breaks.

By the book's end, I felt like I'd corresponded with Ozeki personally. It was hard to believe that Nao wasn't real too. My only criticism was the the ending lacked full closure, but that was intentional. I can't stop thinking about this marvelous book. A Tale for the Time Being inspires me as a writer too.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I bought this book at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine.

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@Barrie Summy

Revision Watch: author John McPhee has a fabulous essay in last week's New Yorker on the painful process of writing a first draft and the art of copyediting: "Draft No. 4".


tina said...

I've never heard of Bully Lit. A sign of the times for sure.

pattinase (abbott) said...

THis one sounds pretty amazing and certainly a creative leap.

Barrie said...

Wow. It certainly sounds as though this book has a lot to offer. Isn't it sad that we need a bully lit genre? BTW, I enjoyed the John McPhee essay. Thank you for reviewing! oh, and I left a comment for you on my blog. ;)

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina and Barrie, some of bully lit is fiction but most, sadly enough, is nonfiction. Hopefully awareness and advice will help. Thanks for hosting, Barrie, and I shall consult your list.

Patti, enjoyed your review too.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

What an incredible-sounding book. I love the description of handwriting. I feel a connection to long-gone relatives through their hand-written letters and notes--as if they are just in the next room and not completely gone.
I know I'd love to read this book, but I'm not sure I can take the brutality. I can be uber-sensitive.

Unknown said...

This sounds like a fascinating but difficult read. My chances to read are so sporadic that I feel like I'd constantly be wondering where exactly I was in the story and whether each part was memoir or fiction...

A truly excellent review!


Lucy said...

Wow, definite way to start the conversation on a sensitive subject. I'm not sure it's one I could read but it definitely sounds like a good book. Interesting concept.

Oh, and when I first read that she'd inserted herself into the story my first thought was how Alfred Hitchcock always worked himself (or his image) into all of his films. A little different here, I know but that's where my mind took me. :)

Thanks for the review.

Carol said...

Sarah, Thanks to one of your earlier reviews, I have been reading Ruth's 'A Tale For The Time Being' . . . I am reading it along with other books and have not gotten even half way. I find it engrossing and imaginative. It is a very inspiring and tragic. I am taking it to the Cape next week and will enjoy it along with the waves. Wonderful review! You capture the essence. It is surprising that a teacher would go along with such bullying . . . even crueler in some ways in how they treat Nao after her parent protests. A fascinating story. I love Ozeki's writing.

☆sapphire said...

Thank you so much for reviewing "A Tale for the Time Being". I'd love to read it. I have not read any of Ruth Ozeki's novels so far. Bullying at school is a serious social problem in Japan: some victims have even committed suicide....

I read your post on the vacation in England. I really enjoyed your photos; The Thames River and greenery around it look so beautiful!! and the pub!

troutbirder said...

Interesting. Even intriguing. That is to say the theme of the book. Though I've never been to Japan I have read widely and also have several friends who were there as teachers. Frankly, it is not a country which I would care to visit as there remain some aspects of it's contemporary culture I do not find appealing...:(

A Cuban In London said...

I smiled to myself when I read about Ruth becoming a character in her own novel. In the book I've been writing forever (will I ever finish it? Don't think so! :-D) I am a character, too. My real self. And as luck would have it, a few years ago, whilst reading one of Kundera's earlier novels I found that he'd used the same literary device. I was very disappointed I wasn't the only one thinking like that. You can see why people use it. It's innovative and it allows to get away with a lot of things other characters wouldn't be able to. Good for Ruth, her book sounds good and I loved your review, of course. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Rose said...

Another great review, Sarah! Lately, I've shied away from books that require me to take too many "restorative breaks." Our book club read "The Shanghai Girls" by Lisa See last winter, and I found it so depressing I've avoided any book that deals with too much suffering. It was an eye-opener, however; I had no idea that the Chinese were so discriminated against in the US during the 40's and 50's.

Loved all the scenes from your trip to England!

Jenn Jilks said...

Well-written and thoughtful, well done.
Cheers from Cottage Country!

Amanda Summer said...

Wow, Bully Lit. As Tina said, a sign of the times for sure. Also curious how publishers are dividing the YA genre into so many subcategories - makes me wonder if such specialization will help or hurt sales. Time will tell.

I love Aunt Jiko's question.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Wow-never heard of the book or the author and so much to like here. Love the handwriting quote. Thanks for the introduction.

Sarah Laurence said...

All, a belated thank you for your comments!

Carol, thanks for sharing your reaction to Ozeki’s book.

Sapphire, I’d be interested in how Ozeki’s work is received in Japan.

ACIL, just because other authors have used this narrative device doesn’t mean you can’t do it too. Since you are an original character, your work would be original too. Good luck with your writing!

Rose, thanks for the book recommendations. Americans didn’t treat the Japanese too well either – they were put in detention camps during WWII. I wish racial discrimination were a thing of the past, but it isn’t, even now.