Reflection: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being

Are you in a New York subway car hanging from a strap, or soaking in your hot tub in Sunnyvale? Are you sunbathing on a sandy beach in Phuket, or having your toenails buffed in Abu Dhabi? Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?

The questions above are asked on the first page of Rush Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being. Ozeki structures her novel as a transoceanic, non-temporal, dialogue between a Japanese high school student, Nao, and a Canadian-Japanese novelist, Ruth. Chapters alternate between Nao’s diary entries, written with the sardonic humor of a jaded teen, traumatized by her extraction from American life and transplantation into contemporary Japanese society, and Ruth’s observations and commentary upon these diary entries, locked in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest.  This structure contributes to the novel’s success both as a mystery novel and as a meditation on trans-pacific spread, both material and ideological.

The Pacific Ocean is the engine that facilitates this cultural dialectic, framed by Ruth’s husband Oliver as the rhythmic currents of a nautical gyre:

There are eleven great planetary gyres.  Two of them flow directly toward us from Japan and diverge just off the BC coastline. The smaller one, the Aleut Gyre, goes north toward the Aleutian Islands. The larger one goes south […] Each gyre orbits at its own speed. And the length of an orbit is called a tone […] The flotsam that rides the gyres is called drift.

As a poet, “gyres” hearken inextricably to Yeats, who believed that time and the world were enwound in repeating cycles of civilization and destruction, death and rebirth.  Certainly, Ozeki wants her readers to have this intertextual referent in mind as a cognate to the Zen-inspired meditations on time, being, life, and death that propel much of the dual narratives of Nao and Ruth.  More than this though, I think the material movement of the ocean, the biological agency of the water itself, is an important aspect of the work.  Oliver’s encyclopedic knowledge of geologic eras and planetary forces might come across as unnatural or even pedantic, but it also serves as an important reminder that the material is not ineffectual or subordinate to the philosophic or spiritual.

One of Ozeki’s prominent themes is crossing, both the trans-pacific movement of matter from Japan to America and vice versa and the crossing of individuals from life into death.  Ozeki upends these perpendicular movements so that what we typically conceive as horizontal and vertical juxtapositions are in fact intricately interlaced and entangled. Ozeki packages the east-west traffic of globalization with the Zen teachings of Nao’s great-grandmother, Jiko.

One of her vows was to save all beings, which basically means that she agreed not to become enlightened until all the other beings in this world get enlightened first. It’s kind of like letting everybody else get into the elevator ahead of you. When you calculate all the beings on this earth at any time, and then add in the ones that are getting born every second and the ones that have already died – and not just human beings either, but all the animals and other life-forms like amoebas and viruses and maybe even plants that have ever lived or ever will live, as well as all the extinct species – well, you can see that enlightenment will take a very long time.

Ozeki directs much of her attention to the traffic of the more than human across ecological biomes.  Non-extant animal and plant life manifests in both the Pacific Northwest and in Japan: crows, trees, and barnacles. Oliver ‘s current project is “a botanical intervention he called the Neo-Eocene,” which involves replanting crops and wildlife that have been historically re-located in preparation for rapid climate change. While Nao and Ruth are certainly “time beings” – so are whales, crows, and jellyfish.

Questions to consider: How does this novel work as an Asian-American, ecocritical, or even postcolonial text?  What connections exist between this and Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange? How does Fukushima, radiation, and quantum mechanics function as forms of nuclear trafficking?