Let me start of by saying this is my first book review, outside of a school assignment. I feel these may be slightly confessional? The act of writing something every week, reflecting on something that I have read, that ideally will resonate with me personally somehow and those personal reflections will creep into the review. Maybe you will get to know me better. Maybe I will get to know myself better.
First confession, I am a huge Japanophile. I love Japanese culture, food, fabric, innovation… and even went to Japan by myself once to experience it first-hand. I discovered Haruki Murakami novels in the airport on the way home and became a huge fan, a natural fit for someone who loves Tom Robbins novels. Mystical fiction is probably my favorite kind. I happily provide the suspension of disbelief (Hello, Can o’Beans!) when asked in the telling of a fantastic story.
When I saw the author, Ozeki, which is also the name of a budget but serviceable sake, I picked it up, expecting it to have Japanese themes and a dash of mystical fiction. This book did not disappoint in that regard. The Japanese side of the story is told via the diary and musings of a Japanese teenage girl named Naoko, nicknamed Nao, and a Canadian (located on a remote island full of inevitably quirky characters) side is told by Ruth, a stalled novelist who finds Nao’s diary after it washes ashore following the earthquake/Fukushima disaster that occurred in 2011. The novel alternates between these two perspectives.
I absolutely loved the story of Nao, her flawed, grasping, suicidal father, her kick-ass Great Grandmother Buddhist nun Jiko, and her discovery of the story of her Great Uncle Haruki (#1), a kamikaze pilot. Her father, Haruki #2, brought the family to Sunnyvale to work as a software engineer and to say more might ruin his story, so I won’t go into too much detail. But, over-invested in stock, a market crash, and being let go from the company forces the family to return, essentially broke, to Japan. Nao, justifiably and understandably, does not adjust well moving away to a “foreign” country and retreats into writing this diary which turns out to be an amazing story. There are absolutely wonderful stories within her story that relate poignant lessons about meditation, the meaning of time, finding a purpose, persevering through difficulty imposed by others, persevering through difficulty imposed by oneself, and the beautiful pointlessness of everything we try to achieve yet can’t stop trying to achieve it.
The “time being” of the title is a remarkable play on words. It’s not simply that the book has stories to pass the time (though it obviously is that as well), some interim state to move you from what you were doing before to what you will do after. To me, the meaning is most clear by taking the words “human being” and replace “human” with “time.” And you are a “time being” in that you have memory, a past, a present/presence with things that will live both much shorter and longer lives than you, and that you also have a future. Which should include reading this book.
Except for this. The book is divided into four parts. The first and third subsections start with Nao, the second and fourth with Ruth. The fourth subsection (as with others) is numbered and STOP READING WHEN YOU GET TO 2. Go directly to the epilogue, do no pass go, do not collect $200.
This will not ruin the experience and warmth and lovely moments of the book, since it happens in the last 4-5 pages. I’ll not be too specific here in case you want to read it and ruin the ending of the book for yourself. Ruth introduces a Deus ex Machina that is absolutely unnecessary by trying to come up with a rationale for what caused her to lose track of the end of Nao’s diary at an earlier point. It’s totally unnecessary and was, for me, the last straw (maybe because there weren’t too many pages left) in feeling bombarded by (real life) Ruth’s expansive knowledge about everything. Maybe Ruth in real life is super nice and I would want to be friends with her. She is exceedingly smart or dedicated to the process of writing, and likely both, because this book touches on Zen Buddhism, Western Philosophy, Japanese and French languages, Japanese, American, and Canadian cultures and ways of life, WWII history, the Fukushima disaster, global ecology issues, and living a low-impact, non-consumerist lifestyle. It’s expansive, and perhaps too much so, because of the unsatisfactory way Ruth’s story concluded. In fact, there are six (6!) short appendices to the book and three (3!) related to the Deus ex Machina.
But Nao’s story is absolutely wonderful, full of warmth and vitality. The character that real life Ruth created in Nao and her family is engaging and will just flat-out delight you. Her story doesn’t need a gimmick to come to its conclusion, because she will live for a long time in your heart.
THAT all BEING SAID if you don’t mind a possible spoiler regarding that Deus ex Machina, read on:
The Deus ex Machina is QUANTUM PHYSICS. This Hail Mary pass is thrown to introduce the possibility of being and not-being, the idea of something being in two states at the same time. It was proposed to explain why words could be in the diary and not in the diary, even though the diary was not capable of being changed once it came into Ruth’s possession. These dual states cannot be measured because the observation alters what is being observed. The idea has some genuinely interesting connections to Zen meditation but it just didn’t coalesce for me as a conclusion to Ruth’s side of the story.
HOWEVER! Although I think the concept is poorly applied in the book, considering it DID help me come to a happy place with How I Met Your Mother and maybe it will help you, too. Because this is Pajiba, and I know how much you care.
There is a state of being in which Ted and Robin are always together. There is also a state of not-being, in which they are NEVER together. You can’t observe this and it can’t be shown to you. Trying to show it to you (ahem, the finale) changes what actually happened. You simply acknowledge the possibility of the two states. You can believe more in the one you want, together or not together, but the possibility of one and the other do exist. Somewhere.
And somewhere, Nao and Jiko and Haruki #1 and Haruki #2 are just fictional characters. But maybe somewhere they are real, and I like to think that.