This year’s selection for the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Go Big Read program, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, is an invitation to reach across boundaries. Cultural boundaries, first and foremost: page one of the novel is already three footnotes deep into Zen Buddhism and Japanese idiom. As the young girl narrator, Nao, begins her tale, her words are footnoted, too, so that English-speaking readers can grasp the meaning of keitai or otaku, place the Taisho Era in Japanese history,1 or look back to Appendix A for more thoughts on Zen moments. This kind of academic apparatus is not unexpected: Ozeki is a Zen priest herself, after all, and this novel is in part a meditation on Zen themes. Footnotes put some people off, but I enjoy them – so many rich connections can be found in a gloss on the text!2
Ozeki’s footnoted epigraph from the Shobogenzo sets the stage in Buddhist impermanence. Nao writes her story in a diary bound inside the covers of a copy of A la recherche du temps perdu, proposing to tell her Buddhist nun grandmother’s story before she “drops out of time,” and another character, Ruth, finds the diary apparently washed up in from the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami. Pretty straightforward so far — but then the footnotes start playing games.
Grandmother Jiko advises Nao to “Start where you are” in writing, so she describes the now out-of-fashion French maid themed cafe where she’s sitting:
It didn’t used to be this way. Back when maid cafes were ninki #1!14 Babette told me that the customers used to line up and wait for hours just to get a table, and the maids were all the prettiest girls in Tokyo, and you could hear them over the noise of Electricity Town calling out, Okaerinasaimase dannasama!,15 which makes men feel rich and important. But now the fad is over and the maids are no longer it, and the only customers are tourists from abroad, and otaku16 from the countryside, or sad hentai with out-of-date fetishes for maids. And the maids, too, are not so pretty or cute anymore, since you can make a lot more money being a nurse at a medical cafe or a fuzzy plushy in Bedtown.17 French maids are downward trending for sure …
Most of those footnotes are straightforward translation and explanation, but that last one, #17, does something new:
17. Can’t find references to medical cafes or Bedtown. Is she making this up?
When I read this I felt the ground shift beneath me. What had been the voice of the Author, Ruth Ozeki, creator of the story and authority on Japanese language, culture, and religion was now the voice of the character Ruth, reading Nao’s diary and puzzling it out right along with me. “All meaning is created through relationship…” says Ozeki, “There is only the exchange, the meaning that you and I, in any given moment, make together…” The relations between author, character, and reader are “a crucial collaboration.”
It’s just one of many moments of transition, where distinctions collapse to reveal connections. The whole novel is full of surprising, suddenly revealed entanglements, binding together not only readers, authors, & characters; but Sliammon mythology & the Many Worlds of quantum mechanics; World War II & Silicon Valley; fears, heroism, weakness; family misunderstandings & family connections; meditations & storms. And somewhere in all that, we find one another.
First sixteen pages
Seventeen footnotes ask, “Is
She making this up?”
Yes, she is; and us3 too.