Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being”

I’m not entirely sold on the framework of this novel, which has a novelist named “Ruth” stumbling across the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese-American girl, but at least it earns its place on account of the surprising, late-game introduction of quantum mechanics; that is, an outside observer is necessary. Or as Derrida might have put it, because a reader cannot help but put their own interpretation on what they read, the reader often becomes, to some extent, the writer. I appreciate that; I only wish that the Ruth sections more organically connected to or reflected the deeper meanings present in Nao’s narrative. It’s not until the very end, when Ruth encounters a form of “reader’s block” that the two worlds really connect.

On the whole, though, the book can be reduced to one single thought: life is nothing but a connection of moments (6,400,099,980), and all it takes is a shift in a single one of them in order to create an entirely different universe. This doesn’t excuse the bullying that Nao or her grandfather received (and, to a certain extent, the passive dismissal of her father’s ethical concerns), but it does suggest that there might be healthier responses than suicide. Or, as Kimmy Schmidt once put it–and I’m paraphrasing–if you can get through the next second, then you can get through the second after that, too, and the next, and before long, you’re through a minute, an hour, a day, a week, and a year. You just need to have a purpose for holding on, and that’s what Nao is in search of when she begins writing her diary between the spine of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It’s why, perhaps, she’s able to cast off her book at the end of the book, for Ruth to find: she no longer needs to fixate on the past, because she’s found it.

Though A Tale for the Time Being doesn’t outright say any of this, some of its parallels and metaphors hint very strongly at it. To begin with, there’s the question of how Nao’s diary washed up on the shore of a British Columbian island to begin with; Ruth’s husband posits that it was caught in a gyre of trash floating Limbo-like around the ocean until that one moment at which–perhaps dislodged by the ripple of a butterfly wing elsewhere, or more accurately, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011–it was deemed ready to move on to the person who would be most receptive to reading it. But there’s also the existence of the diary itself, which although it purports to be chronicling the last days of a suicide, is actually doing the exact opposite by preserving her thoughts, her essence, in what the book describes as a Scheherazade-like delaying of death (i.e., immortality).

Why do we spend so much time trying to find the purpose of life? Life is, by definition, that purpose. It is only when there is nothing left to say that the book comes to a close.

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How to Write: Rick Moody’s “Hotels of North America”

Hotels of North America may be a fictional autobiography masquerading as a series of equally fake online reviews of North American hotels, but that doesn’t keep it from being saturated in a lot of truth. All this soul-sucking anonymity of postmodern America, this wallowing in temporary and shallow lodgings, what the book’s “author” Reginald Edward Morse poetically elevates as “the nomadic life,” is a hefty stretch of despair and disillusionment, a peeling back of the bright wallpapers in these so-called hotels that hide the terrors under low-thread count coverings. It reminds me a lot of the way that David Foster Wallace’s short stories often started out under the guise of being one thing (“Little Expressionless Animals,” “Octet,” “Mister Squishy”) only to inevitably become something else–or, really, to have been the other all along.

To be clear, none of the entries in this book are traditional hotel reviews. The only thing, really, that each entry has in common with the format of a review is that it tends towards lengthy lists that recount numerous traumas or sorrows, those that are most directly the sense memory inspired by one dismal room or another. The novel is a master lesson in craft, but here are some examples, each complete flash fiction in of itself:

My parents were parted early in my childhood. My father was an organization man, and he was often away, and he simply stopped returning to our address after a certain time. No explanation was offered. Or maybe there was an explanation but it was so vague as to be uninterpretable by the likes of me. What a dreadful experience for a young boy who just wanted the company of his dad, who just wanted to whack at baseballs in the backyard with the old man, who just wanted to be taught to use a circular saw, who just wanted to learn the rudiments of five-card stud or blackjack, who just wanted to understand the precise location of the clitoris or how to pronounce clitoris, or who wanted to learn how to order meat from a waiter, or who wanted to say the word meat with great gusto, or who wanted to learn the proper way to mix and shake a martini, or who wanted to learn to say good little piece of tail, or who wanted to contemplate the necessity of moving on, or who wanted to neglect to shave, or who wanted to learn the specifics of firearms, wanted to be able to eject a used shell, to drive with one hand and dangle the other out the window, to belch without shame, who wanted to drink in the morning, who wanted not to bother flushing the toilet, who wanted to learn to walk naked from the bathroom without worrying about who saw him, and who wanted to cut down his colleagues, his personal friends, in midsentence when he had to. Who would not want his dad when his dad was gone?

Note the precise way in which Moody builds and layers the narrator’s attempts to grasp at memories, both positive and negative–anything that would allow him to bring back his father, to better make sense of his own life and his own failings. See the contrast between words that stand for objects (clitoris) and words used simply as words (clitoris), and realize that everything has significance here. Such lists can also be comic, too, with the exaggerations in this next example quickly becoming distorted. Continue reading

Readings: “You Throw a Stone,” by Juan Felipe Herrera

I can’t remember the last time I read and enjoyed a straight-up poem that didn’t come wrapped in some other form of media, but this one blew me away. (Not for nothing is the author the poet laureate of the United States.)

It’s visual, so you have to go to the actual Times site to get a feel for the way the lacunae are used to show distance. It’s political, but not specific, so it has a timeless appeal.

I love the transitions, too: “you throw a stone / i throw a stone / i throw a stone / you throw a stone” suddenly becomes “then a rocket.” The natural sun “cannot penetrate,” but these artificial bombs can tear us apart. Childish games evaporate the place where “you and i / once played (in our separate dreams).”

That’s heartbreaking stuff, really. I recommend you read it here, now.

The Very Necessary Parable of “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip”

This is the sort of book that makes you ache to have a child, so that you can help pass this wisdom on to the next generation. Ours, and those older than us, are too stubborn, I fear, to hear and understand what’s going on in George Saunders’s The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. As with Roald Dahl, there are selfish adults and a tireless precocious child, and in the style of Dr. Seuss, there’s an absurd threat–the orange, baseball-sized, goat-loving, screaming gappers. Just listen to how well simple sentence structure and repetition are used for comic effect:

There were approximately fifteen hundred gappers living in the sea near Frip. Each Frip family had about ten goats. Therefore there would normally be about five hundred gappers per goat. Tonight, however, with all fifteen hundred gappers in Capable’s yard, there were approximately one hundred fifty gappers per goat. Since the average goat can carry about sixty gappers before it drops to its knees and keels over on one side with a mortified look on its face, when Capable came out to brush gappers that night, she found every single one of her goats lying on its side with a mortified look on its face, completely covered with shrieking orange gappers.

Why the dim-witted gappers do this isn’t particularly important; they’re simply accepted and treated as a fact of life. (Look at how Saunders grounds them, first, with math.) In turn, that makes the reaction of the two other families seem almost logical, as they spend all of their money to get further and further away from the gappers (literally driving themselves into a swamp) rather than addressing the root of the problem, or bothering to actually work. (They thank God for helping them, mainly because that helps them to avoid helping others.) As Swift once proved, that’s the best sort of satire, using a crazy notion to reveal, by association, how crazy all the other things that enabled it must have been. Continue reading

Some Things Are Better Left Unwritten: “The Buried Giant”

Despite the appearance of an actual buried giant, the title refers to the forced metaphor hanging over the entire book, which is that of the anger and resentment between Saxons and Britons, a blood feud that only Merlin’s magic was able to erase, and only then by enchanting a dragon’s breath so as to sap the England citizenry of their memories. In the words of Peggy Lee, then, I’m left wondering “Is that all there is?” after plodding through Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Ishiguro’s language is (intentionally) dull, reflecting the miasmatic mist, and the few action scenes between knights and ogres or demons are recounted secondhand or as blink-and-you’ll-miss it samurai-like exchanges. What’s left, then, is a series of repetitious conversations between an elderly couple and a warrior and his young, dragon-bitten ward. (There are also two “reveries” given over to a knight, Gawain.) It’s not much fun to read, and there’s not much reason for it–as a novella or, better yet, as a short story, the mystery might have justified the cadence: instead, the book makes its point in the first few pages, and spends the next several hundred wearing its audience down.  Continue reading

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