Monday, October 10, 2016

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

This is one of those elegantly, intricately crafted novels with plot threads that intersect across great spans of time and place. Nao is a Japanese teen-ager with a troubled family life who sets out to learn about the history of her great, great grandmother, a Buddhist nun. On an island off the coast of Washington state, a novelist, Ruth, finds a small but intriguing collection of Japanese memorabilia that's washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, perhaps a remnant of the 2011 tsunami. Ruth and Nao set off on almost compulsive quests to unravel their respective mysteries on either side of the Pacific.

Nao lives with her idealistic but impractical father, who tries desperately to his his depression and lack of business acumen, and her mother, who is slowly, quietly, going mad.
Mom was almost never at home at the time. She was into her jellyfish phase, and she used to spend all day at the invertebrate tank in the city aquarium, where she would sit, clutching her old Gucci handbag, watching kurage through the glass. I know this because she took me there once. It was the only thing that relaxed her. She had read somewhere that watching kurage was beneficial to your health because it reduces stress levels, only the problem was that a lot of other housewives had read the same article, so it was always crowded in front of the tank, and the aquarium had to set out folding chairs, and you had to get there really early in order to get a good spot, all of which was very stressful. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure she was having a nervous breakdown at the time, but I remember how pale and beautiful she looked with her delicate profile against the watery blue tank, and her bloodshot eyes following the drift of the pink and yellow jellyfish as they floated by like pulsing pastel-colored moons, trailing their long tentacles behind them.
Nao's father's professional decline was triggered by his conscience, which kicked in, most inconveniently, when he took an IT job in the Silicon Valley and was assigned to a defense-related project.  His pacifist nature did not mesh with the company's mission or vision, either one.
He sat perfectly still, studying his hands in his lap. "I know it is a stupid idea to design a weapon that will refuse to kill," he said."But maybe I could make the killing not so much fun."
(He was sacked shortly thereafter, and the family returned to Japan in disgrace.)  Meanwhile, Ruth is trying to decode some artefacts in the lunchbox that seemed to have belonged to a kamikaze pilot...

A glorious, quirky collection of history, philosophy and metaphysics, A Tale for the Time Being deserves attentive reading and re-reading, and I owe it both.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.