Wednesday, 6 November 2013

What do you do after it's finished? A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki review

There are times, usually after I've taken down an art installation, that I often wonder what I'm going to do with with myself. It's a kind of transcendental sadness that occurs after you've ploughed so much of your time and effort and feelings into something. To me, when a show comes down, it's like it doesn't exist anymore. It has slipped away from time, and it almost exists in another dimension. I dedicated a massive part of my psyche to something that feels so ephemeral. I'm asked what ideas I have for my next show, but I'm still dedicated to the one that's just finished.

Novels can sometimes be similar. You emerge yourself so heavily into another world that, after you've closed the back cover and removed the bookmark, you wonder, "what am I to do with myself now?" After reading Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, I honestly thought that maybe I could never read another book again.
Nao is a Japanese born, American raised teenager who is attempting to write the life story of her 104 year old great-grandmother Jiko in a 'hacked' copy of À la recherche du temps perdu. You also find out that this is the last thing she will write before she kills herself. In another time, in British Colombia, the author Ruth finds a washed up Hello Kitty lunchbox containing an old watch, French letters, and Nao's journal.

Attempting to read the diary at the same pace as Nao wrote it, Ruth becomes increasing worried about the state of Nao and her suicidal father. She employs Google search to try and track them down, with only a few sparse, vague references to them. She worries that maybe she's become a victim of the Japanese tsunami that struck in 2011, although it becomes quite clear that the journal was written at least ten years earlier when Nao refers to her fathers obsession with 9/11.

This book contains a lot of references (it has six appendices, as well as a bibliography), but it is all relevant. Nao and Ruth are not insular people, they react to the world around them. There's the Pleistocene, Japanese maid cafe's, Schrödinger's cat, Hugh Everett, a Texas sized piece of marine debris, kamikaze pilots and Zen. It's not over whelming though, often the protagonists are as confused about this as the reader.

This book was truly one of the most immersive ones that I've read in a long time. I found myself getting annoyed at people when they interrupted my reading, "But I need to know if Nao's okay...". The characters are barraged with instances where their view-point, indeed their world-view, is challenged. It is a coming of age story on both counts: Nao has to learn to live with herself and understand her family, whereas Ruth needs to come to terms with the fear of her ageing self, after her mother suffered from Alzheimer's.

I'd be lying if I said the book didn't have a profound effect on me. It is the only book I've ever cried at. It's not a inherently sad or depressing book, but it left me with a lot of hope for myself after what seems to be a never ending bad patch.

A 'time being', as Nao explains at the beginning of the book, is someone who lives in time, you, me, everyone who ever has or ever will exist. The pun in the title of the book also refers to the fact that is a book for this this moment, for a few of the 6,400,099,980 moments that exist in the day, for the time being.

This book is for my time being, it will get me through my life at this moment.



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