Inspiration is a happy convergence of random factors, which if you are lucky, you notice and then can use. And it helps if you have a husband who sends you interesting links! – Ruth Ozeki
This is a book about time and being, about cats—both real and figurative—and crows—both literal and mythological— about Japan and Canada and America too a little; it’s about life and death; about war and peace; about Buddhism, philosophy and quantum mechanics; about superheroes and living ghosts; about coming of age and dying with dignity; it’s about the interchangeable roles of readers and writers; about disasters both natural and manmade; it’s about family and duty, grief, honour and shame. It’s about 400 pages long but since it’s really two novels masquerading as one it’s no longer than it needs to be considering how much is packed into it; it has six appendixes and 165 footnotes and it kept me occupied and interested for a good week and despite the fact things got pretty complicated towards the end and she didn’t tie things up the way I would’ve liked (or would’ve done) I came away from the book with a sense of completeness even if every question wasn’t answered and wasn’t likely ever to be answered except in some parallel universe where all questions get answered. I mean, seriously, how did the French diary get from the pilot’s lunchbox to his remains box?
Naoko Yasutani is almost fifteen when she begins writing her story. She’s Japanese, born to Japanese parents, but has lived most of her life up in Sunnyvale, California:
[E]verything was great and we were just cruising along, except for the fact that we were living in a total dreamland called the Dot-Com Bubble, and when it burst, Dad’s company went bankrupt, and he got sacked, and we lost our visas and had to come back to Japan, which totally sucked because not only did Dad not have a job, but he’d also taken a big percentage of his big fat salary in stock options so suddenly we didn’t have any savings either, and Tokyo’s not cheap. It was a complete bust. Dad was sulking around like a jilted lover, and Mom was grim and tight and righteous, but at least they identified as Japanese and still spoke the language fluently. I, on the other hand, was totally fucked, because I identified as American, and even though we always spoke Japanese at home, my conversational skills were limited to basic, daily-life stuff like where’s my allowance, and pass the jam, and Oh please please please don’t make me leave Sunnyvale.
Nao (pronounced ‘now’) tells her story in the present tense but the present tense is a bit of a bugger. You feel as if I’m talking to you in real time just now, don’t you? The fact is that I’m writing this in a flat in Scotland on March 31st. We’re in completely separate time zones and probably in different countries. So when Ruth finds Nao’s book in a Hello Kitty lunchbox on a Canadian beach several years later it’s hard for her not read Nao’s story as if the girl is talking to her in real time especially as Nao has a habit of addressing her reader directly:
Here’s a thought: If I were a Christian, you would be my God.
Don’t you see? Because the way I talk to you is the way I think some Christian people talk to God. I don’t mean praying exactly, because when you pray you usually want something, or at least that’s what Kayla said. She used to pray for stuff and then tell her parents exactly what she’d prayed for, and usually she got what she wanted. They were probably trying to make her believe in God, but I happen to know it wasn’t working.
Anyway, I don’t really think you’re God or expect you to grant me wishes or anything. I just appreciate it that I can talk to you and you’re willing to listen. But I better hurry up or I’ll never catch up to where I’m supposed to be.
She’s nothing if not chatty as you might expect any fifteen-year-old Japanese girl to be and, yes, she witters on about a lot of the things you’d expect a fifteen-year-old to go on about (although, oddly enough, not so much about boys) but she’s got more pressing concerns: the first is her suicidal dad and the second is the fact she’s being bullied at school. The Japanese attitudes towards and approaches to suicide (a major social problem in Japan – see Japan: ending the culture of the 'honourable' suicide) and what I’ve called bullying (the Japanese word for what happens to Nao is ijime—see Ijime: A Social Illness of Japan) are fascinating. Quite, quite different to what happens in the west. By the time she sits down to write her story—in a French maid fetish café in Akiba Electricity Town of all places (see Maid Cafés – The Expanding Industry in Japan)—the second issue has pretty much resolved itself but only because she stops going to school; her father is still a concern since he can’t find a job (not that he’s tried very hard) and spends all his time at home moping around, reading manga comics or making origami insects from pages of his old philosophy books.
Salvation comes in odd packages sometimes. In Nao’s case hers comes in the diminutive shape of her great-grandmother, Jiko, a one-hundred-and-four-year-old (so she says) Zen Buddhist nun. After spending her summer holiday with Jiko in her temple in Miyagi, a prefecture located in the Tohoku region in the northeastern part of Japan, Nao begins to see life in a completely different way. The prefectural home to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is located just south of Miyagi, by the way, so you see where this might be going. And that’s what Ruth wonders. Was Nao there at the time of the tsunami? Is that how her lunchbox with its precious cargo started its travels? The problem is, the dates don’t quite add up.
Ruth takes her time reading Nao’s diary. She resists the urge to rush through it and tries to read it in real time as best she can.
Of course, the entries were undated, so there was no way of really knowing how slow or fast that might have been, but there were clues: the changing hues of ink, as well as shifts in the density or angle of the handwriting, which seemed to indicate breaks in time or mood. If she studied these, she might be able to break up the diary into hypothetical intervals, and even assign numbers to them, and then pace her reading accordingly. If she sensed the girl was on a roll, she could allow herself to read further and more quickly, but if it felt like the pace of the writing was slowing down, then she would slow her reading down, too, or stop altogether. This way she wouldn’t end up with an overly compressed or accelerated sense of the girl’s life and its unfolding, nor would she run the risk of wasting too much time. She would be able to balance her reading of the diary with all the work she still needed to do on her own memoir.
The diary isn’t the only thing the lunchbox contains. There’s also a watch, some letters in Japanese and a diary-of-sorts in French. In the breaks from reading she ropes in some of her neighbours to help with the translations; she lives on a remote island in the middle of Desolation Sound, British Columbia where everyone knows everyone’s business. Benoit, who worked at the local dump, takes on the challenge of the French diary; Kimi, the wife of a restaurateur in the nearest town of any size to where Ruth and her husband live, says she’ll translate the letters. Everyone’s keen to know what’s going on and try as she might she simply can’t keep her discovery a secret. Her own writing is not going well, though. She’s been trying to work on a memoir but can’t make any progress especially now she has this distraction.
She trawls through the Internet for information but there is precious little. Nothing on Nao at all—surprising although a possible explanation is provided near the end of the book—and then an unexpected discovery:
The website belonged to a professor of psychology at Stanford University, a Dr. Rongstad Leistiko. Dr. Leistiko was doing research on first-person narratives of suicide and self-killing. He had posted an excerpt from a letter, written to him by one of his informants, a man by the name of “Harry.”
Nao’s father was named Haruki Yasutani. He’d been a Japanese computer engineer who once lived in Sunnyvale, California, and worked in Silicon Valley during the dot-com days. Could this be the same man? Suddenly she realises that there might be a way of getting in touch with Nao and she writes an urgent e-mail to the professor. Why urgent? Because Nao has been talking about killing herself and Ruth is so caught up in the present tense of Nao’s narrative that the slippage of time in the real world has quite bypassed her and it’s not until her husband points this out that she’s brought crashing down to reality with a thud. Perhaps both Nao and her father are long dead, if not by their own hands then as a result of the tsunami. Or maybe not. A bit like Schrödinger’s cat. If she reads on she’ll find out one way or the other. And you’d think a woman with a cat called Schrödinger would know that; that said the cat’s been referred to as ‘the Pest’ for so long (or ‘Pesto’ if they’re feeling affectionate) that she’s probably forgotten that. Then again how come there’s a Japanese Jungle Crow sitting outside her house? What’s he after?
The book is a work of metafiction. Saying that is enough to put people off reading your book—I know that from personal experience—but writers will love this book. In an interview in The Guardian Ruth Ozeki was asked:
Nao's diary is described as a "message in a bottle". Is the fictional author Ruth's discovery of the diary a metaphor for how a story is born?
That's exactly right. As a writer you wait around for inspiration; this book is about what happens when a character taps a writer on the shoulder and calls her into being; it's about the character creating a novelist. – Anita Sethi, ‘Ruth Ozeki: “This book is about the character creating a novelist”’, The Guardian, 7 March 2013
There are a lot of biographical elements in the book: like Ruth, Ruth Ozeki lives on an island in British Columbia; like Nao, she’s a Japanese-American writer who did experience a cultural shock when she went to Japan herself; like Jiko, she’s a Zen Buddhist priest and from the way she describes him in interview her husband (the artist Oliver Kellhammer) sounds not unlike Ruth’s Oliver. And they also have a cat. All of this kind of stuff is familiar ground if you’re a writer yourself. What probably you’ll find harder to relate to is the fact she’d already submitted her book to her editor after having rewritten it “four of five times,” she says, “with different readers in mind” since 2006 (although its origins date back to 1999)—this being her third novel—and then, after the Tōhoku tsunami hit in 2011, she withdrew it and rewrote it again:
“I just threw away half the book. … It felt like such a relief.” – Felicia R. Lee, ‘What the Tide Brought In’, The New York Times, 12 March 2013
I’ve only heard of John Irving doing that kind of thing but I suppose there must be others. Takes a certain kind of writer to be able to do that, I can tell you. I’ve no idea what the book was like before but her final solution was inspired, a literary novel that’s not only readable and relevant but is also a page-turner. (Small point: in this interview she says she says she was was about to submit it to her editor.)
It’s not without its issues though. In the book, for example, she talks about gyres. The word was new to me:
“There are eleven great planetary gyres,” he said. “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. It’s sometimes called the Turtle Gyre, because the sea turtles ride it when they migrate from Japan to Baja.”
“Each gyre orbits at its own speed,” he continued. “And the length of an orbit is called a tone. Isn’t that beautiful? Like the music of the spheres. The longest orbital period is thirteen years, which establishes the fundamental tone. The Turtle Gyre has a half tone of six and a half years. The Aleut Gyre, a quarter tone of three. The flotsam that rides the gyres is called drift. Drift that stays in the orbit of the gyre is considered to be part of the gyre memory. The rate of escape from the gyre determines the half-life of drift . . .”
He picked up the Hello Kitty lunchbox and turned it over in his hands. “All that stuff from people’s homes in Japan that the tsunami swept out to sea? They’ve been tracking it and predicting it will wash up on our coastline. I think it’s just happening sooner than anyone expected.”
Well this book, at times, feels a bit like that. There is just so much stuff thrown into the mix. Just look at my opening paragraph and that doesn’t cover it. I forgot to mention the hentai and the Proust and World War II and the kamikaze pilots and the suicide clubs and the fact that there’s a sudden lurch into magic realism territory near the end of the novel that might confuse a few readers. It’s a lot to take in at once but it’s not so bad when you’re on the shore and every day the tide washes in new and interesting stuff for you to pick through. And that’s how the book works. The tides come in (Nao’s sections) and they go out (in Ruth’s). Bit by bit you know what to hang onto and what to let you. All the stuff about the gyres and the Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches is interesting but once you’ve had your question answered—How might the Hello Kitty lunchbox (and possibly the crow) have found their way from Japan to Canada?—you can move on. Nao is prone to digress too. She says, for example, that she’s going to tell us the story of her great-grandmother:
This diary will tell the real life story of my great-grandmother Yasutani Jiko. She was a nun and a novelist and New Woman of the Taisho era. She was also an anarchist and a feminist who had plenty of lovers, both males and females, but she was never kinky or nasty. And even though I may end up mentioning some of her love affairs, everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap. So if kinky nasty things are your pleasure, please close this book and give it to your wife or co-worker and save yourself a lot of time and trouble.
Well, we do get to learn about Jiko but Nao takes her own sweet time getting round to it so one can feel a bit frustrated, as if you’ve been led on, but she’s like any other fifteen-year-old girl, full of good intentions. Besides, although she dilly-dallies along the way, it’s not as if she’s not talking about interesting stuff. As it happens we actually don’t learn that much about Jiko’s past—the paragraph above covers it nicely—besides, her present is quite enough to get on with; the book really did not need another hundred pages.
All the footnotes are a bit of a bind too but there weren’t many I felt able to skip over. I read this in ebook format and it definitely slowed me down waiting on the damn tablet deciding whether or not it was going to jump to the right page or interpret my stab at the screen as an instruction to turn the page back. These, and the detours Nao feels she needs to take to explain things to us (and Ruth and Oliver, too, to a lesser degree) do slow down the action but all the exposition is necessary. And helpful. About the only part I got lost in was the section on Schrödinger's cat which I’ve read about several times before and I just really don’t have the head for stuff like that.
Bottom line then: the reviews in the tabloids have all been on the positive side— “Bewitching, intelligent and heartbreaking” (Junot Díaz), “deeply moving and thought-provoking” (Madeline Miller), “[i]ngenious and touching” (Philip Pullman), “remarkable and ambitious” ( Jane Hamilton), “[f]unny, heartbreaking, moving and profound” (Doug Johnstone)… and they just go on and on and I’m not going to disagree with any of them. It was all these things. It wasn’t perfect but Zen Buddhists are not big on perfection: It's about connection, not perfection, and I was touched.
Ruth Ozeki is an award-winning novelist and filmmaker. She is the author of My Year of Meats (1998) which won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award, the Imus/Barnes and Noble American Book Award, and a Special Jury Prize of the World Cookbook Awards in Versaille and All Over Creation (2002) for which she was awarded a 2004 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, as well as the Willa Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction.
She was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, by an American father and a Japanese mother. She studied English and Asian Studies at Smith College and travelled extensively in Asia. She received a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara University.
Ozeki, a frequent speaker on college and university campuses, currently divides her time between New York City and British Columbia, where she lives with her husband, artist, Oliver Kellhammer. She serves on the advisory editorial board of the Asian American Literary Review and on the Creative Advisory Council of Hedgebrook. She practices Zen Buddhism with Zoketsu Norman Fischer, and is the editor of the Everyday Zen website. She was ordained as a Sōtō Zen priest in June, 2010.