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Literary time capsule: Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being”

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki    Published by Text, $32.99

Ruth Ozeki has always been a writer with a conscience. (It’s no accident that apart from being a novelist, she’s also a Buddhist priest.) In her first novel, My Year of Meats, she drew attention to the noxious additives and hormones used in raising livestock and meat processing; like Barbara Kingsolver and others, political agenda is deeply rooted in her fiction. Her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, blends fantasy and history with Ozeki’s concerns about pollution and the environment. And for good measure, there’s a big dose of quantum physics, Japanese pop culture and Zen Buddhism thrown in.

Confused? Go with the flow. This is a fairy tale for our time. Time being the operative word. But I’ll get to that. This review, rather like the novel itself, may meander. And what is time anyway? A series of collapsible portholes through which to view the present and the past. (Ozeki’s obviously got to me, I’m going all Zen.)

On a remote island on the Pacific coast of Canada, Ruth, a novelist, lives with her husband Oliver. A keen beachcomber, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up onshore. Inside, there’s a diary written in Japanese. Luckily Ruth, who is half-Japanese herself, can read it. She discovers it belongs to a 16 year-old schoolgirl called Nao (pronounced ‘now’). Bullied at school because she has spent much of her childhood in America and deeply miserable, Nao intends to kill herself, but before she does she wants to recount the life of her beloved grandmother, the 105-year old Buddhist nun and feminist, Jiko.

Ruth, who is herself trying to write a memoir of her mother, becomes fascinated with Nao. Did she perish in the tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake? If not, where is she? Ruth puts her own writing aside and embarks on a quest to find her. The novel interweaves Ruth’s Google searches and increasingly frantic emails to potential sources of information, with pages from Nao’s diary, which gradually reveal much about her family’s history. The reader finds out about Nao’s chronically depressed and suicidal father, and the uncle she never met, a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. Part detective novel, part meditative Zen koān, the novel unfolds like a series of Chinese boxes, each theme opening up to the next.

Let’s look at “reality versus unreality” first.  The protagonist of the novel is called “Ruth”, like Ozeki herself, and the real Ruth Ozeki, like her fictitious counterpart, is married to a man called Oliver. Yet the fictional Ruth is not Ruth Ozeki, novelist. They look very different, and though they share a common half-American, half Japanese heritage, they are clearly not the same person.

So why does Ozeki call her leading character Ruth? Is it to draw attention to the novelist’s craft of fabrication and make-believe? Nao and her diary are clearly not “real” in a tangible sense, although they feel real in the time-zone of reading and the close bond forged between reader and writer through the pages of a novel. Yet Ozeki constantly pokes holes at this relationship by including copious footnotes painstakingly explaining references to Japanese culture, Buddhist practise and history – each time a footnote is looked up, suspension of disbelief is thwarted and the reader is jolted back to the present, becoming conscious that the work is one of fiction.

Another theme is that of time. The novel covers several time frames, Nao’s recent past, Ruth’s present, and even further back in history to the days of the Second World War where Nao’s uncle was a “sky soldier”. The preamble to the book is taken from a Zen Buddhist text saying that any Tom, Dick or Harry is: For the time being, the entire earth and the boundless sky.

This echoes the Buddhist belief that both the inanimate and the animate are inextricably intertwined. But it also introduces the theme of humans as “beings in time”. Nao (Now, get it?), Oliver, Ruth and all the characters in the book are “time beings”, who exist in their personal time zones and also elsewhere in the novelist and reader’s imaginations. Here, quantum physics comes in, in relation to the fact that particles can also behave like waves and can never be pinned down in time or space – the moment you try to do so, they behave like something else.

Nao’s diary is also – coincidentally or not – wrapped up in a faux cover – that of Proust’s epic novel, Remembrance of Things Past. Elusive, but potentially full of clues, one moment revealing its full text and then mysteriously showing Ruth blank pages, it behaves like a quantum physics particle, in, out and of its time.

Within this complex structure, Ozeki introduces themes of pollution and environmental catastrophe, as seen by the tsunami itself, oddly migrating bird species, unusual flotsam and jetsam, and the intricacy of global wave cycles.  It is also a critique of contemporary Japanese society, where the penalty for not being successful or fitting in with cultural norms has bred a generation of reclusives and a suicide rate among the under 25s that is three times higher than that of the USA. Yet within all this, Ruth herself seems little more than a catalyst for Nao’s overpowering story and cataclysmic life events. The more we get to know Nao, the less tangible Ruth seems, until she appears little more than a tangle of footnotes (163 to be exact), facts, emails and hypotheses.

It’s as if Ozeki were concentrating so hard on the novel’s many themes that she bypasses the narrative arc of one of her principle characters.  If A Tale for the Time Being leaves the reader up in the air, it is because the fictitious Ruth seems much less “real” than the fictitious Nao. But in the dynamics of quantum physics, that might be precisely Ozeki’s point.

LISTEN TO MY INTERVIEW WITH RUTH OZEKI NEXT WEEK ON MY PAGETURNERS PODCAST: I’LL POST A LINK ON BOOKS NOW!

 

 

 

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Black in America: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie               Published by Knopf, $26.95

I first read Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 collection of short stories The Thing About Your Neck earlier this year and was immediately struck by the breadth of her writing palette. Here was a writer who spoke openly of race relations – the reasons why sexual relationships between white men and black women can flounder; the condescending attitude of some white intellectuals towards black intelligentsia; the hostilities faced by black African emigrés to the West; and the turbulence, violence and social upheavals of modern day Nigeria.  Adichie, I discovered, wrote with elegance, intelligence, wit and often savage satire, wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions and tackle rough ground. I immediately chased up her best-known novel Half of a Yellow Sun, a searing account of the Biafran wars, which won The Orange Prize and is being made into a movie.  And eagerly awaited her third novel, Americanah.

To put the Adichie phenomenon into perspective, she divides her time between Nigeria and the USA where she writes and has lectured at Princeton. She was awarded a Macarthur “Genius” grant in 2010 and the New Yorker featured her in its list of 20 best authors under the age of 40 – she’s 36. Young, gifted, articulate and (though it’s not PC to admit it) drop-dead gorgeous, Adichie is a publishing PR dream.  What’s more, Americanah ticks all the boxes: it’s a sprawling, rich tapestry that spans three continents, a 20 year time frame and explores race, ambition, love, identity, Barack Obama, social media – and the politics of black hair. In fact much of the narrative takes place in flashback as the heroine, Ifemulu, is having her hair braided during an eight-hour marathon in a hair salon before returning to her homeland.

At the start of the novel Ifemulu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts in Nigeria, but when Ifemulu wins a scholarship for post-graduate studies in Phlladelphia, they part, she bound for the USA and he to Britain. Skillfully, the novel weaves Obinze’s struggles to win the “holy grail” of a work permit with Ifemulu’s own desperate attempts to find part-time employment. Adichie observes both the subtleties – and overt knocks – of racial discrimination with keen detachment whilst depicting the rawness and intensity of the pair’s loneliness and social isolation. Ifemulu obtains her coveted Green Card; Obinze, who has been working illegally, is deported. Back in “the new” Nigeria, he becomes a wealthy business-man in a country where greed, ambition, knowing the right political allies, plus a healthy dose of corruption, can get you to the top. Adichie’s withering account of Nigerian nouveau-riches parvenus and society wannabees is  both humorous and dangerously close to the bone. So too is her account of Obinze’s discomfiture at a middle-class dinner-party in Islington, where an old school friend now married to a white solicitor is holding court, more English than the English with his pukka Sloane Ranger accent, as they dig into a series of “ethnic plates”.  Adichie is in her element as a satirist of the chattering classes, skewering both black and white, and her accounts of social gatherings in Lagos, London and New York are a highlight of the novel.

By now Ifemulu and Obinze have drifted apart. He marries a socialite; she has a series of relationships with both white and black men, and becomes a famous blogger, penning irreverent and controversial insights into race: Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.  A selection of her blog posts is included in the novel. These are both challenging and confrontational and though they occasionally disrupt the flow of the book and signpost Adichie’s polemics too relentlessly, they still force readers into questioning their own attitudes to race relations.

To my Fellow Non-American Blacks in America. You Are Black, Baby

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your own country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up. And admit it – you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad?” I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.”

Ifemulu’s posts cover the media’s treatment of black women in beauty and fashion (under-represented); white society’s desire to “whitewash” prejudice; the role of the black intellectual in WASP society; the Obama phenomenon; and the insidious perception that unrelaxed “native” black hair is “jungle” hair and has no place in white society. In fact, each post is a pointed reminder that the black experience remains that of the “other”, Obama or not – and is an uncomfortable truth for the liberally-minded.

The last part of the novel, when Ifemulu  returns to Lagos and is reunited with Obinze, seems a trifle rushed, a touch forced, as if Adichie had covered all bases and simply wished to conclude matters with a happy ending. Nevertheless, Americanah is a wise, perspicacious, funny, and always thought-provoking novel in which Adichie shows off her literary prowess, her impressive grasp of form and her global consciousness.

Read it: to immerse yourself in a skilful novelist’s view of politics, history and race relations.


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Settling old scores: Saul Bellow’s Heart

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Pictured – Greg Bellow as a toddler in his father’s arms

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow    Bloomsbury    $26.99

Greg Bellow first heard of his father, Saul Bellow’s, death on the car radio. The media were informed before the family. At Saul Bellow’s funeral, the eulogies were given by luminaries such as author Martin Amis, Bellow’s literary “son”, but none of his own three sons were asked to contribute. Over the ensuing weeks, tributes flowed incessantly from writers, such as Philip Roth, who had been mentored by Bellow and by his many friends. So orchestrated were these testaments of public grief, that Greg Bellow wondered: “What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?”

Greg Bellow’s memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart is a poignant cri de coeur of what it was like growing up in the shadow of that huge literary presence, and monumental ego. It’s a commonplace that just because you may be a great writer, you are not necessarily a great human being. Greg Bellow’s warts-and-all account of his father is refreshingly honest. Life was not easy with a man who was affectionate and easy to love but who expected much and often gave little in return. Greg Bellow recounts the many hours he spent as a child waiting for his father to finish writing in his locked study after being promised an outing that never eventuated. Saul’s Bellow’s gravestone simply states he was a “Writer”, not that he was also a “father”. Reading between the lines, it’s clear Greg Bellow ruefully understands where Saul’s priorities lay.

For a long time, Greg Bellow tried to separate his father’s public and private personae. This was partly out of respect for Saul’s privacy but also his own peace of mind. The older son of Saul Bellow’s first marriage, Greg’s early years were spent out of the spotlight, as his father struggled to write. But after the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Saul Bellow’s star rose. By the time Herzog was published in 1964, he was not only world-famous but hailed by Time magazine as an icon of American literature. As Martin Amis wrote in The Atlantic Monthly: “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” Bellow’s Nobel Prize win in 1976 cemented his greatness.

For Greg, Saul’s rise to international prominence saw him change from the “young Saul” – warm, left-leaning, bohemian, tolerant – to “old Saul” – grumpy, conservative, arrogant and reactionary. It was the time of anger and recrimination. Greg, who had absorbed tolerance and liberalism in his childhood from both parents, could not accept “old Saul’s” right-wing views and the two were estranged for a time. Greg was also furious that Saul did not attend the marriage of his own granddaughter, Greg’s daughter Juliet. It was only later that he realised Saul was trying to cover up the muddle-headness that was besetting him in old age and did not wish to make a public appearance. Though reconciled at the end, their relationship was frequently a bumpy one.

This is also a memoir of justification – Greg is very keen to point out his own financial independence (he was a successful psychotherapist for over 40 years).  This is particularly relevant in view of his complex family history: Saul Bellow married five times. There were sons from the first three marriages, and a daughter with his last wife, Janis, forty years his junior. Janis became the executor of Saul’s estate after his death in 2005 and unpleasant family feuds and legal battles ensued amongst the siblings. Greg makes it clear he wanted no part in this and that he loved his father for himself alone. Part of the rationale for writing this book was to put forward his own personal view of a brilliant and difficult man.

There are many anecdotes in this memoir that shed light on Bellow’s personality: crying in the car after yet another row with his own father; the spirited, extended family dinners with everyone speaking Yiddish and talking at once; even the amusing snapshot of Saul’s sister falling asleep during the Nobel Prize ceremony, so interminably long were the speeches. Yet Greg Bellow never reconciles himself to the fact that as a public figure, his father was shared by many others, and this memoir quivers frequently on the verge of resentment.

This, then, is his final judgement of his father: “He was a man who lived for a singular creative purpose; a man who struggled with his deepest emotions; an author touched with literary genius; an authority with wisdom to impart; a father recently passed away; a father largely absent but emotionally present; and a man, father, and husband who promised more than he could deliver. And I was his little boy: a boy who felt deeply cared about; a grown son deeply influenced by the kind of love he received; and a man wrestling with the challenges of relating to a difficult father who walked away from shared family ideals.”


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Where are the Women? A fresh look at James Salter

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All That Is, by James Salter

Published by: Picador    $29.99

James Salter’s new novel All That Is, is his first in 34 years. Not that he’s been idle. There  have been short story collections and his memoir, Burning the Days. Salter, an iconic figure in American literature, has had an extraordinarily varied writing life. Now 87, he was a war hero, serving as a fighter pilot in Korea (his novel, The Hunters, examines his wartime experiences). He then became a full time writer in New York and Paris before the Hollywood phase of his writing took over – he wrote the screenplays for acclaimed films such as Downhill Racer.

At a time when Philip Roth has declared there will be no more novels, it is heartening to see an older writer still very much in control of the medium. There are sentences in All That Is that are so carefully wrought, so luminous, a reader could weep with delight. There is no doubt Salter combines the rigorous and the poetic and he is a master of form. Why then, do I have so many reservations about the novel?

The first reason is Salter’s central character, Philip Bowman. In may ways he is a typical Salter hero, an action man and naval officer who after the Second World War, begins a career in publishing.  We see the burgeoning success of his career as a New York editor, track his first disastrous marriage and witness a series of doomed affairs, before (SPOILER ALERT!) his meeting with a woman with whom, the reader senses, he will spend the rest of his life. We meet his friends and colleagues and peer into their lives, which very much counterpoint or reflect Bowman’s own.

The sweep of the novel traces Bowman’s lifepath from the last days of WW2 to what appears to be the end of the 1980s. This is a momentous period in American history – TV, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights Movement, hippies, man on the moon, the IT revolution, the rise of feminism – the list of upheavals and innovations goes on and on, and yet none of this is tackled in the novel, which glosses over the shifting socio-cultural landscape as if it were a paranthesis.

Salter writes at the end of one chapter: “A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas”. And that’s 1963 dismissed, along with one of the most emotional and game-changing events in US politics. In the next chapter we’re back in the navel-gazing world of publishing and its smug acolytes. This is a network of WASP men, with hermetically-sealed WASP values that seem to hover somewhere around the 1930s. The handful of Jews who infiltrate this world are assimilated – no other ethnic minorities are represented.

Indeed, Bowman personifies the blinkered, prejudiced, retro-looking white American male. He is irritatingly self-satisfied and self-absorbed. He’s a lover of art and music, of Paris and good food, but if you told him that across town from his comfortable Manhattan condo there were single parent families living in poverty, rat-infested houses, racial unrest, he would probably look at you in disbelief. It’s a long time since I’ve met a protagonist in a novel so socially unaware. And it’s hard not to wonder if Salter is also out of touch with the dynamics and concerns of contemporary society.

Salter’s defenders would no doubt reply that the novel dissects and satirises a certain time and class, but I think he’s in deadly earnest.  It is telling that the most vibrant and affecting passages concern Bowman’s time fighting during the war. Here, there is an immediacy, a sense of empathy with his fellow-man that is not seen in the remainder of the novel.

This lack of empathy is especially true concerning Bowman’s attitude towards women. To backtrack for a moment: All That Is has received glowing reviews, but I’ve yet to see one female critic among the fulsome accolades accorded by the male reviewers I’ve scanned. Nor do any women writers appear on the book jacket, where you can read  plaudits by Julian Barnes, Tim O’Brien, Edmund White and (most disappointingly, as he’s one of my literary gods), John Banville.

To backtrack further, Salter’s treatment of women in his fiction to date has been equivocal at best. The women in his books are admired, worshipped, lusted over and possessed sexually, but they are also talked at (rarely conversed with) and patently intellectually inferior. Salter can write paragraphs of the most glorious sensuality and eroticism (A Sport and a Pastime arguably contains some of the best-written sex in literature – though written entirely from the male perspective) but the relationships between men and women outside the bedroom are strained.

All That Is continues in the same vein. Here’s a young Bowman with Vivian, soon to be his wife. On a previous date, he told her to read Hemingway (she hadn’t). Then:

“He wanted to go on talking about Ezra Pound and introduce the subject of the Cantos, perhaps reading one or two of the most brilliant  of them to her, but Vivian’s mind was elsewhere”.

Clearly, Vivian’s not up to such lofty discourse. Again, here’s a description of a girl met at a party. “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” 

Demeaning as this is, more disturbing is the way Salter completely ignores gender politics and the advances women have made over the past 50 years. Television series such as Madmen chronicle the evolution of women in the workforce and their transition from lowly secretaries in the 1950s to power-brokers. But Salter’s women never cross that threshold. They may work and hold down serious jobs yet their status remains ill-defined. Here’s a snatch of conversation that dates circa 1980, late in the novel, with Bowman very much an elder statesman by this time.

Claire continued talking about Susan Sontag. What did they really think of her – she meant what did Bowman think……

“All powerful women cause anxiety”, he said.

“Do you really think so?”……

“Men do”, he said.

That exchange almost took my breath away. It’s not only the way Sontag (one of 20th century culture’s most clear-sighted analysts) is so casually dismissed.  This scene is also a lesson in how to alienate a female audience and completely implausible given the inroads women had made by the Eighties. Whatever Bowman’s personal views, he could never, ever, have uttered them so publicly. In the next line, we read that Claire considers Bowman’s reply “chauvinistic”, yet instead of rebutting him, she goes on to make a drunken fool of herself.

Thirty pages and some plot twists later, the novel ends, with Bowman attaining a kind of peace, reconciling himself with all that is, was and is to come. Yet as a female reader, I felt cheated. Far from an epic narrative that scrutinises what it is to be human in the 20th century, I was left considering all that the novel was not but could have been.  If this is to be Salter’s last book, it holds its place uneasily and divides more than it conquers.

Read it: To observe a supreme stylist at work