book review or “a fine-tuned fuck of a novel”


Finished reading For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki last night. I am still pondering and digesting it. I found it clever and skillful in a way few contemporary works of art manage to pull off. On the face of it, it is the alternating narrative of the dairy of Nao (pronounced “now”) and the day to day life of a character named Ruth. They both live on islands. Nao lives in Japan and Ruth in Vancouver Island. Ruth has found Nao’s diary washed up on the beach with a bunch of other stuff in plastic bags. She is a writer who is experiencing writer’s block living on this island with her husband, Oliver. She decides to read the diary slowly, letting it unfold over the course of the entire novel.

Nao’s story is the story of a young girl who is out of place in Japan since she was raised in California before her father lost his job in a silicon valley gig and comes home broke and broken to Japan. On the ensuing connection between these two lives hangs a magical tale of brutality and beauty.

Ozeki has placed several appendices in the novel which are footnoted in the text. My one recommendation is that you read these appendices as they are footnoted since they (like everything) are part of the evolving narrative.

Ultimately I think Ozeki is a bit hard on her character Ruth. Ruth gets annoyed quickly by her charmingly methodical autodidact of a husband, Oliver. She is unreasonable and impatient sometimes exploding into weird rage at herself which she directs at others. Sometimes the reader might surmise the brutality around this character is a bitter mirror for the author.

There is more even brutality around the characters Nao, her father (Haruki #2) and her long dead great-uncle (Haruki #1). Nao and Haruki #1 are the victims of ijime which apparently is Japanese for very skillful and prolonged “bullying.” But the cultural expression of this is much more deeply rooted and defined as described here. Nao is systematically tortured by her her fellow Japanese students. Haruki #1’s letters and “Secret French Diary” reveal his own experience of this torture as he is selected to be a kamikazi pilot at the very end of WWII.

The plot hangs on the story of Nao and her grandmother Jiko, the Zen Buddhist nun. Jiko is a fictional character that will stay in my brain for a long time. She is a hundred and four years old and living in a Buddhist temple. Nao ends up there in the course of the story. Jiko insight into Nao and the way she envelopes and heals her through her also helps Ruth to heal herself is at the heart of the novel.

Before she is done, Ozeki blends Zen Buddhism, Japanese manga culture, Proust, origami, botany, Schrodinger’s cat,  quantum physics, multiple wolds of possibilities and old fashioned magic into this fine-tuned fuck of a novel. Recommended.

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