books, Reading, Women Writers

“A Tale For the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

          “Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand ‘flying’ as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being.
          To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”  – Dogen Zenji, Uji

IMG_0947I adore writers who can successfully bend time, and Ruth Ozeki has proven that time, to her, is as malleable as clay. “A Tale For the Time Being” blends the stories of Ruth, a writer somewhat begrudgingly inhabiting a sleepy island town in British Columbia, and Naoko, a troubled and tormented teen in Tokyo, Japan. While strolling along the beach one day, Ruth discovers a barnacle-covered package, a package which contains a diary, a packet of letters in Japanese, a small notebook full of French missives, and an antique watch. Ruth, who is herself of Japanese descent, slowly reads through her treasure – what turns out to be Nao’s diary and the letters and diary of her great uncle Hiroki, a conscripted kamikaze pilot in World War II.

Naoko’s writings – of her “going from being a middle-class techno-yuppie’s kid in Sunnyvale, California, to an unemployed loser’s kid in Tokyo Japan”, of her torment at the hands of vicious bullies, of her great-grandmother “Old” Jiko – are written and read with such urgency that Ruth, though likely reading these scribblings years after their creation, feels intimately connected to them.

          “Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader’s eye.
          Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is an intimate as skin.”

As Ruth’s readings progress, she begins to feel as though the diary’s actions are concurrently happening with her reading of them and that she could, in fact, impact their outcomes. She becomes lost in time, uncertain how and when the arc of Naoko’s story fits in with the arc of her own. Living on a stormy, nearly-desolate island, Ruth feels disquieted and displaced.

“It was only in an urban landscape, amid straight lines and architecture, that she could situation herself in human time and history. As a novelist she needed this. She missed people. She missed human intrigue, drama and power struggles. She needed her own species, not to talk to, necessarily, but just to be among, as a bystander in a crowd or an anonymous witness.”

Nao, like her ‘heir’ Ruth, is fascinated by the seemingly elusive concept of time. Her explorations and musings of time and of ‘now’ tickle the mind and belie her youth.

“If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary, then you’ll know that the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction. It’s hopeless, really. …The word now always felt especially strange and unreal to me because it was me, at least the sound of it was. Nao was now and had this whole other meaning.”

Ruth Ozeki’s beautiful novel, “A Tale For the Time Being”, bends time and space in gorgeous ebbs and flows. Ozeki blends multiple narratives, embedding diary entries into a contemporary writer’s story, in a way which celebrates the seams and emphasizes the borders, even as those borders are being blurred. The novel is confessional and intimate. It dares you to put it down, challenges you to blink first.

books, Reading, Women Writers

“All Over Creation” by Ruth Ozeki

1438097088097Ruth Ozeki’s 2004 bestseller, “All Over Creation”, is an anti-pastoral story – one of hardship, struggle, turmoil, and disconnect. It is a story about seeds and growth – both literally and metaphorically. Far from idealizing farm life, “All Over Creation” makes the community as roundly developed and fallible as any other character.

In Liberty Falls, Idaho, Yumi Fuller lives on a potato farm with her Japanese mother Momoko and her staunchly ‘salt of the earth’ father Lloyd. Yumi’s life begins in a relatively predictable manner; she is drawn to her silent, reserved father, orbiting around him and thriving in the smallest of lights he shines on her.

“Finally Momoko would press her lips togther. ‘Hmm,’ she would grunt. ‘Two peas in a pod.’ …Did he teach her that phrase? She seemed to enjoy saying it, enjoy her role in your ceremony, although with that act of abnegation, she put herself outside the two of you. What did that cost her? At least a small twinge of belonging, because if your heart was any measure, your face must have lit up like the sun, to hear her pronouncement. Did that hurt her, too? It was triumph to you. Flesh of her flesh, turning from her – you would have banished her entirely, had you not needed the power of her affirmation. Oh, yeah, your allegiances were firmly with Daddy.”

As adolescence descends, however, Yumi’s childhood ‘spirit’ becomes teenage angst and rebellion. By age 14, Yumi has fled her family, her town, and the life she knows, staying away for more than 25 years.

“Do you remember when that ammonia train car derailed over behind the Ungers? And all the stuff went into the air and we all had to evacuate, and how scared we were because the poisonous gas was going everywhere, on every wind, but you couldn’t see it? That’s what it was going to be like. I could tell that your shame was going to fill every crack in the house, seep into every second of the day, and suck the air right out of me. And when the word got around, there wasn’t going to be any room left for me to breathe in the whole of Power County that wasn’t taken up with your shame. It wasn’t fair. You might think that the poison was in me, Daddy, but you’d be wrong. I was just the derailed train car. The shame was yours, and I knew if I stayed, I’d be poisoned by it. I’d grow up all screwy and bent with the weight of your shame. So I left. It was an evacuation, Daddy.”

Ozeki’s characters are deeply flawed and sometimes frustratingly one dimensional. The adult Yumi returns to Liberty Falls and, seemingly, her teenage years in one fell swoop. Yumi’s smarmy childhood love returns, too, without seeming to have learned anything from the intervening decades. Even Yumi’s parents, at once calmly sage and virulently stubborn, seem only to have aged, not matured. Perhaps this one-dimensionality is purposeful; perhaps Ozeki suggests that people don’t really change, even as the world around them changes. As an outsider looking in, however, the characters’ stagnation was often frustrating.

In truth, Ozeki does play with time and its effect on her characters, but primarily in terms of status changes – adulthood, marriage, parenthood – not in personal maturity. In a particularly insightful passage, Yumi’s childhood best friend Cass struggles precisely with this concept of time passed.

“[These thoughts] confused her, made her angry, as though the whole middle section of her life – the part where she was supposed to grow to adulthood, bear children be a young mother, and watch her children grow – had simply been elided. Slurred over. She felt, at once, far too old and impossibly young, and there was a gap in the middle, like a section of her torso had gone missing. Sometimes in dreams she lived in these gaps, where small false starts came to naught, and sparks of life shriveled or spiraled up like burning ash only to turn to powder on her fingertips when she tried to catch them in the air.”

Similarly, Yumi has a rare moment of insight, ruminating that:

“Time plays tricks on mothers. It teases you with breaks and brief caesuras, only to skip wildly forward, bringing breathtaking changes to your baby’s body. Only he wasn’t a baby anymore, and how often did I have to learn that? The lessons were painful. Like that time when I inhaled, expecting his sweet scent, and got the first fetid whiff of adult decay. He must have been six or seven, and how I grieved for his infant perfection! Soon after, I reached for him, still full of confidence and maternal entitlement, and I felt him stiffen and pull away.”

“All Over Creation” was the first of Ruth Ozeki’s books which I have read. Ozeki’s writing had seeds of beauty, new sprouts showing elegance and grace that seemed promising and demonstrated the writer’s, er, green thumb. Unfortunately, I also found that the novel’s plot points were often telegraphed and cliche-adjacent. Perhaps the potato is an apt metaphor for the book itself – solid, filling, satiating, if not exactly brimming with remarkable, memorable flavor.