A Tale for the Time Being. Ruth Ozeki.

Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale for the Time Being. Penguin Canada paper Toronto. 2013. F; 1/14.

Remarkable book. I usually fall for a smooth sophisticated show, a la Cunningham and Ondaatje, and I’m suspicious right away when I get the feeling somebody is putting on fake simplicity, being disingenuous. Why be cutesy or excessively down-home when you know you can be magnificent? I wondered about Alice Munro that way but concluded it was really her. This book started out in that suspect folksy mode and that put me off, but there was so much going on it finally made me look inward and I ended up changed. Quite an experience.

Unabashedly autobiographical Ruth (it turns out this is a Japanese fiction genre, shishosetsu, a self-story) lives on Cortes Island (about 125 km north of where I sit writing this) with her quirky nerd husband, lots and lots of books, and of course a cat. Named Schrödinger, helping us to get ready for some partially-informed science and philosophy. Ruth’s a writer, see? And so begins her story with intended-to-disarm country island guilelessness. Tracy Kidder tells us when reading a good book we are in search of the author, but here we don’t have to look beyond the first page. Woo-hoo, here I am!

Ruth in her gumboots walking on the beach finds a young Japanese girl’s diary along with a few other things in a barnacle-encrusted plastic bag and of course starts reading. The diarist and second protagonist is Nao, 14 or 15, being physically and emotionally bullied at school in Japan and trying to escape the misery of her dad’s losing his Silicon Valley job and she losing her affluent California life and friends, the family now in poverty, and the dad being unsuccessfully suicidal.

The self-denigrating girl tells us, writing in her diary at a table in what turns out to be a brothel, straight out and probably correctly that the man at the next table might well be interested in strangling her with her aromatic underpants.  Because folksy nature-lady Ruth as we know her so far wouldn’t be putting that bit of reflection in the mind of her character quite so uncritically, a straightforward shishosetsu it suddenly seems this isn’t.

The story elaborates alternating between Nao’s troubles and planned suicide and Ruth’s pursuit of whatever shreds of reality there may be to this desperate diary. There are at least a dozen vignettes that are inescapably spectacular. The island characters closing in on Ruth in the post office, all well aware from the grapevine of her find, are even more laughably ingenuous than folksy old Ruth number one (both she and the “real” Ruth hail from New York City). Nao walks into a Japanese convenience store with her tiny centenarian Buddhist nun grandmother, past half a dozen dangerously abusive biker chicks smoking on the front step. Nao is terrified for both of them as they leave the store, but the grandmother, all human kindness and ice water, confronts them and bows deeply with universally credible courage and respect. For some reason I found that quite moving.

The writing is savvy and there is no shortage of serious major themes. Nao isn’t just a teenager but a colloquial believable modern teenager. There is a non-trivial ambiguous moral thread in the story of Nao’s uncle the World War II kamikaze pilot and the girl’s (and fictional Ruth’s) eventual understanding of her father’s similarly honourable but harmful sacrifice, and his reaching desperately to prevent the worst of the harm we understand (even though she doesn’t) he knows his daughter experiences. Time as per the title is reflected in Ruth’s fiction-minded misunderstanding of the documented substantial age of the barnacles on the diary’s plastic bag. Buddhism is handled with an initiate’s realistic detail and focus on its goal of inner-life accomplishment.

“Crazy is the price you pay for having an imagination” says husband Oliver in the morally un-simplistic resolution of an argument he has had with Ruth. There’s plenty here to feed appreciation of the wild side of creativity and the imagined life, their contingency, and their at least metaphoric similarity to the counterintuitive relativity of modern physics. There is no present as we understand it in common sense, when, like Nao’s life, things happening as we might imagine now in a place far far away can’t possibly be happening to us in real time. And yet they are.  This affirmation has nothing to do with being disingenuous.

And then we wrap up with a cutesy ending. Full circle, I guess. Between the covers of this book, imprinted for me with that false humility, there is enough to have made me think hard about what I’m doing and what makes a good story. And no chance I’m meant to judge a book that does that by its covers. 9.2/8.5

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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