Thursday, January 23, 2014

Walter Mason thinks you'll want to read Ruth Ozeki's A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING over and over again

 UHBC co-host and writer Walter Mason has nothing but praise for A Tale for the Time Being - a novel he describes as "the most original, and challenging, novel I have read in many years".

Many of us felt disappointed when Ruth Ozeki didn’t win the Booker Prize for her incredibly original novel A Tale for the Time Being. Me especially, because I was honoured to work with her at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year and I came away impressed by her wisdom, her gentleness and her great respect for and interest in the ideas of others. I have waited till now to review her book because I simply wasn’t confident about what I wanted to say about it. It is a novel so rich and so complex that I felt that any attempt by me to explain it must be totally inadequate.

Ruth Ozeki
Perhaps I will begin with structure. A Tale for the Time Being is put together in a complicated way – multiple chronologies and points of view, stories within stories, characters as other characters. I probably don’t need to point out that Ozeki is herself a character in the novel, a creatively frustrated, blocked writer living on a remote island with an ecologist husband, mourning the recent death of her mother. The discovery of a young woman’s diary – recorded in a Hello Kitty notebook – washed up on a beach serves as the beginning of Ozeki’s fractured and multi-layered story about time, about writing, and about how the reader creates her own meanings.

It is a story, too, about religion and rebirth, an exploration of some of the tricker implications of karma and rebirth, things that are very familiar to the novelist Ozeki, who is also a Zen priest. She creates in the book a remote mountain temple that is home to an elderly Buddhist nun, grandmother of the lost young woman whose manuscript was washed up on the beach.  These are, perhaps, the most beautiful and poetic parts of the book, describing an almost-mythic Japanese landscape and reflecting on the transcendent beauty of the Japanese Buddhist aesthetic.

Ozeki is not afraid, either, of introducing a great deal of philosophical complexity into her writing. Sections of the book deal, in quite a fascinating way, with textual analysis of the Shobogenzo, one of the drier books in the Zen Buddhist canon, but one richly alive with meaning and possibility:

“...he praises his young monks for their commitment to a path of awakening and explicates the granular nature of time: the 6,400,099,980 moments that constitute a single day. His point is that every single one of these moments provides an opportunity to re-establish our will. Even the snap of a finger, he says, provides us with sixty-five opportunities to wake up and to choose actions that will produce beneficial karma...”

The whole final part of the book, as well, explores theories of time and how we can shape and mould our experience of it. The ultimate effect is quite mind-blowing and one woman I spoke to told me she was unable to read another book for weeks after finishing this one because it had changed her conceptions so much and thrown her into a state of doubt about reality.

This is, I think, precisely what Ozeki intends, and I can’t help but wonder what it might be like to spend an hour inside her head.  In her writing she is entirely unafraid to throw things out wildly, to change and shift radically, to experiment and contemplate. It is certainly the most original, and challenging, novel I have read in many years.

Ruth, the narrator of the book, is in a state of anxiety, and each of the texts (and texts within texts) that she explores convinces her of the fractured inconsequentiality of existence, but also of the terrible inevitability of time’s progress and the wilful ways we choose to ignore it. “Frittering our lives away,” she worries, just as the Japanese narrator, Nao, worries about her father’s sad and pointless existence.

There is a great deal of playful post-modernism at work in the novel, with long excerpts, for example, of academic works on Japanese democracy, the recitation of Buddhist prayers and the frequent change of narrative voice and perspective. This probably sounds more daunting than it actually is, for Ozeki possesses great natural ability and charm as a writer and somehow brings it all together. I was left admiring her daring. 

There is sweetness, too, in the book. The relationship between the disenfranchised young Japanese girl and her elderly Buddhist grandmother is exquisitely rendered, and these passages are filled with affectionate detail:

“They save up all their bent pins and broken sewing needles and once a year they do a whole memorial service for them, chanting and then sticking them into a block of tofu so they will have a nice, soft place to rest. Jiko says that everything has a spirit, even if it is old and useless, and we must console and honor the things that have served us well.”

The theme of this book is the multi-variant essence of time, and how a recognition of this should cause us to be more playful and joyous, rather than fretful at its passing. Ozeki’s “Time Beings” respect both the ageless sureties of continual existence and the fleeting pleasures of temporary materiality. It is thought-inspiring, incredibly clever and really life-changing. It explores the acts of writing, reading and recording, and how stimulating and creative reading can be, and it celebrates the importance of the creative conflicts between tradition and innovation.  It is a novel both totally new and richly familiar. You’ll want to read it again.

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