Blurring the line between truth and fiction in a time-bending novel
With her superb third novel about to arrive in bookstores, does Ruth Ozeki think of herself as creating a body of work, an oeuvre, so to speak?
“I’ve never had the temerity to think that,” Ozeki says during a call that reaches her while she is in transit from Toronto, where she has been visiting her in-laws, to her home nestled amongst 20 acres of rainforest on Cortes Island, British Columbia. “A body needs four limbs. And a head,” she notes, laughing. “Now that I have three novels and two films that I’m proud of, I am beginning to think, wow, maybe before I die it will be possible to have something that could be called a body.”
But asked then to characterize the common concerns that link one book to another, Ozeki demurs. “I wouldn’t ever want to approach it from the outside like that. What’s important to me is the integrity of the book I’m currently writing. Maybe the notion of a body of work is something that’s applied afterward by other people.”
Good point. But Ozeki’s widely praised first and second novels—My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003)—do share common threads with A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki’s best and most adventurous novel to date. First there is a common flare of vivid storytelling. And, as a very close second, all of her novels delve provocatively into history, raise concerns about the fate not just of her human characters but of the Earth itself, and play with profound philosophical questions.
As the title of the new book suggests, one of the questions Ozeki explores here is what it means to live in the present. The book began in her imagination, she says, when the voice of a young girl spoke the words that are now the opening lines of the novel: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being.” Nao (pronounced Now) is the sweet, chatty, troubled Japanese teenager whose diary washes up on the shores of Cortes Island sometime after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011.
“I was intrigued by
. . . this idea that we are all time beings, that time is our medium.”
“Nao was persistent and she was distinctive and she just kept showing up and saying the most outrageous things,” Ozeki says of the origins of the novel. “And I was intrigued by this idea of a ‘time being’ and this idea that we are all time beings, that time is our medium.”
Over the course of the book, Nao becomes a fully realized character in part because Ozeki is well acquainted with Japanese culture. She grew up in New Haven, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. After college she worked and attended graduate school in Japan and, later, traveled back and forth to Tokyo while directing documentary-style programs for a Japanese company. She and her husband, Oliver Kellhammer, a Canadian land artist and writer, returned to Tokyo during the composition of this novel to get a feel for the city’s Akihabara Electric Town, the flashy shopping district where her character Nao hangs out in a somewhat creepy maids café writing in her diary and fending off unwanted advances from inept nerds.
“The voice and character of Nao were never a problem,” Ozeki says. “But I knew that Nao needed a reader. In some ways this book is also about the relationship between a writer and a reader. I auditioned four or five characters for the role of reader and wrote complete drafts of the book. I tried all sorts of different people.” None of them worked.
Then after the 2011 tsunami, Ozeki returned to an early storytelling impulse she had first rejected. “I’ve always had this semi-autobiographical relationship with some of my characters,” she says, “and Oliver and I were talking about this one day, and he said, you need to step out from behind the veil of fiction and be in your book.”
So the character who discovers and reads Nao’s diary; the character who worries and frets about Nao as the teenager describes her suicidal father, her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, and her own despairing thoughts about her life; the character who meditates on the riddle of Nao’s ultimate fate is a version of Ruth Ozeki herself.
“We’re living in a time when the membrane between fiction and nonfiction is quite permeable,” Ozeki says, explaining her audacious narrative choice. “The distinctions are falling away, and I think that’s because of the Internet. Everyone has an avatar now, or multiple avatars. We’re always fictionalizing ourselves and everyone understands this now. Every person we talk to brings out a different facet of ourselves. In this case, the Ruth who stepped forward was drawn out by Nao’s particular voice.”
But the choice to put a version of herself in the novel had implications for others around her, especially her husband. “I said to Oliver, well, if I’m going to be in the book you have to be in the book, too. He said that’s a good plot experiment. Go for it. Now he’s a little nervous. His concern about the Oliver character is that I’ve made him smarter than he is,” she says, laughing.
Like her character Ruth, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist, and the concepts of her practice permeate, unobtrusively, the novel. Ozeki was ordained as a Zen priest in June 2010. She is associated with the Brooklyn Zen Center, and spends part of each year in New York City, where she has maintained an apartment in the East Village for more than 20 years.
“I started practicing Zen seriously when my father died, when things were really falling apart in my life. I got more and more serious about it as I was taking care of my mother when she had Alzheimer’s. When she died I thought a lot about succession. We don’t have children, so in a way, I don’t have a future. I’d been practicing Zen and I just realized I want to be a part of a lineage, a tradition, and help keep the practice alive and flourishing in the world. So I decided to ordain.”
Ruth’s and Nao’s separate but interconnected lives play out against a background of large-scale human suffering—the tsunami, 9/11 and the legacies of World War II.
“That’s certainly my experience of my life,” Ozeki says, “that there are these huge catastrophic events, one after the other. Each one is seismic and each shifts the ground on which we stand. My feeling is that fiction is where we process this. It’s where I try to make some sense of these kinds of events. Otherwise it’s just one damned thing after another.”
Yet, strangely enough, there is nothing particularly bleak about Ozeki’s novel. Part of that is due to her sly, often Zen-like sense of humor. “There’s almost a slapstick quality to Zen humor. It’s disarming. Literally. Because the whole point of Zen is to take away your armament, to sort of make you put down your defensive weapons. And feel things.”
And that happens to be an apt description of the impact of A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that is both disarming and likely to leave readers feeling its emotional impact for a long time to come.