Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki

I remember finding a letter on the Elizabeth Street bridge, a single torn page revealing the pain of love. There was no name at the top, no addressee, but there was a "you": you who changed my life and made me so happy, but now so sad because you dumped me. And like Ozeki's character Ruth in A Tale for the Time Being, I could tell from the shape of those hard-pressed blue words that it was a letter written by a young hand. My immediate response to this letter was empathy, and I worried if the person who wrote it was OK. Now, if this single page had been a diary, which is what Ruth finds washed up on the beach in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, I too would have become obsessed.

Diaries are intimate expressions of thought and experience that connect us to our humanity. They reveal our strengths and weaknesses, our cruelties and power. Ozeki's use of a diary within a novel develops a parallel narrative structure that thoroughly engages the reader, because all you want is more: more about Nao, the diary writer; more about Ruth, the diary reader, who happens to be a writer; more about Nao's great grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun; more Japanese words; more of Ruth’s Internet searches to alleviate some of the anxiety you feel for these characters, because there are serious things happening in the novel--bullying, attempted suicide, prostitution.

In an online interview, Ozeki, responding to a question about where writers find their inspiration, says that A Tale for the Time Being is about a “character creating a novelist.” The idea of co-creation between readers and writers is familiar to me, but Ozeki explores this idea from a unique perspective. Playing with the idea of inserting herself into her own novel, Ozeki creates an “avatar” to discover the truth about where she, as a writer, gets her inspiration. What she discovers is that a character’s voice brings a novelist into being, because this voice leads you to your deepest thoughts and gives them form. This extraordinary novel from a Japanese-American writer who is a Zen Buddhist priest includes footnotes, appendices, and Buddhist teachings and guidelines for practice to give the reader a complete picture of how a novel is created.

- Morvern McNie

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