Yesterday Cathy Tile’s presentation concerned a book by Ruth Ozeki called For the Time Being about a Japanese-American girl named ironically enough Nao ( Now???!). There are actually two stories, one concerning Nao who is a bullied, depressed adolescent who contemplates suicide; and, Ruth living on an island in B.C, the other narrator who happens upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox by the water and is desperate in trying to discover if she can alter/ save/ prevent Nao’s plans. The time lines of Nao and Ruth do not coalesce as Ruth attempts to find out when Nao packed up her lunchbox and how it might have arrived on the shores of BC from Japan.
It is a troubling tale that raises many issues: bullying, displacement, suicide, loneliness, personal and professional success and failure in life. The disorienting factor, however, is time lie and how Ozeki manipulates the reader to believe that Ruth might actually be able to find and save Nao. Time loses its meaning in a linear fashion, expanding and contracting, shaped by our, Ruth’s and Nao’s emotions, pulling all of us into a tangle or a large soup within which we float.
Ruth, herself, does not really draw us in; she is the stooped woman we see wearing a cardigan in a checkout line, eyes focused on the ground to avoid interaction. Nao is the changeling, part Californian- part Japanese searching for friendship but isolated and taunted for her difference and inability to succeed in school and fit in. Her solace comes from her great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun who leads by example, espouses peace and provides Nao with a summer of escape from the abuse of her schoolmates. We learn of Nao’s kamikaze uncle who preferred suicide rather than participate in war, her father who suffers because he will not permit his software to be used for killing : all junctures of great stress . And we have Ruth- the writer- who incorporates these lives, these times into her own time, making them part of her own story and altering the course of their trajectories to suggest different resolutions to the endings of these narratives. ( As we perhaps we wish we could, too).
My friend Anne corelated connections with Ian McEwan’s Atonement where time shifts to alter the story: making me think, if only we, too could unwind the narratives of our days and, like old video tapes, slice off parts we did not like, re jumble and change the outcomes of events. I recall watching the plane crashing of 9/11 and thinking for a second, this is only a show on tape. Let’s rewind it and erase it; it’s not real. Cathy Tile briefly referred to Atkinson’s Life after Life, also a play on “what if” the character’s life followed one path then shifted to a second to reveal diverse outcomes. I reflect too on Robert Frost’s Roads Not Taken and how important the choice made a crucial moments is.
I too thought of TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton I ,“Time present and time past. Are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present.
And as we read Ruth’s thoughts, all of the past does become our present. It is for me, a deeply disturbing book, not one easily read. There is much dislocation as both Ruth and Nao grapple with their own stories, trying to establish identities and find places for themselves .It makes one aware of how difficult, even day to day existence can be for ordinary people like Ruth the writer and Nao the school girl.
Jiko the grandmother stands outside of time, calm, unjudging, beaming with a kind of truth that encompasses a godlike understanding and acceptance. I suppose Ruth’s manipulation of the story suggests we can take stories into our own hands and make them better, providing more positive outcomes. This is of course the role of imagination: to light the way out of the darkness of life, yet what is saddening is the back drop of others, the people who make war, make life hideous for little girls, and pilots who would prefer to soar not be forced to shoot. Instead of being able to go about our daily life, smell the flowers and smile openly, our refuge must be in the darkness of our heads where we can choose to write and improve the tale, concocting a better kinder story.
Time especially as we age is a topic we ruminate on. Have we wasted time? What time is remaining and how we can stretch the time that remains into satisfying vignettes to assuage the notion that our time in time may dissipate at any moment. Maybe it is the cool of fall, the twist of the last leaf on the tree, the drooping flowers that remind us of this eternal fact.