Oh Ruth Ozeki, bless you, for writing another book and letting it be this one. It was worth the wait and one that I will add to my short list of all time favorites.
The story is deceptively simple: Ruth, a blocked writer living on a remote island off the northwest Canadian coast, finds a Hello Kitty lunch box buried in a pile of flotsam on the beach. Inside is the journal of a 16 year old Japanese girl named Nao. Nao is going to kill herself soon but before she does, she wants to share with with her reader (whoever that might be that finds the journal) the story of her 104 year old greatgrandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. As Ruth reads the journal aloud to her husband at night on their wild, stormy island, we learn Nao’s story, and that of her family–depressed father, kamikaze pilot uncle, and of course, the radical feminist nun, old Jiko–and we learn how finding the journal affects Ruth.
One of the things I love most about Ruth Ozeki’s books is her way of seeing Japanese culture that is not Orientalized. Both in this novel and My Year of Meats, Ozeki’s characters and their situations could seem so ludicrous or plain old kooky to the Western reader who knows nothing about Japan that one would think that Ozeki just has a really wild imagination. But she clearly has spent or spends time in Japan and understands the way that the “old” and the new layer and reverberate around the culture. She’s not romantic about things Japanese being more “beautiful” or “spiritual” or “high tech,” but she sees how modern life and individuals in society are informed by their cultural histories, philosophies, or religions. The character of Nao is the voice of this understanding, and simply one of the best characters that I’ve ever encountered. She is blunt and straightforward and she explains things in the voice of young, earnest person. To wit:
“Obviously I am not a samurai warrior, and nowadays ronin just means a dummy who screws up her entrance exams and has to take extra classes in cram school and study at home while she works up enough enthusiasm and self-confidence to take the test again. Usually ronin have graduated from high school and are living with their parents while they try to get into university. It’s pretty unusual to be a junior high school ronin like me, but I am old for my grade…..
The way to you write ronin is 浪人 with the character for wave and the character for person, which is pretty much how I feel, like a little wave person floating around on the stormy sea of life.”
Ozeki is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest in real life. Clearly the novel is informed by her practice and the teachings of some of Zen Buddhisms greatest teachers. In particular, she seems interested in the ideas of Dogen Zenj, a 13th century Buddhist master, who is quoted before Part III of the novel, here in part:
“…every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”
Whew! Heavy mind-bending stuff. But with humor and situational ordinariness, Ozeki unapacks Dogen’s teachings and Buddhist practices in the novel–both for her 16 year old character and for we the readers. In one part of the novel, Nao, suicidal and miserable from being brutally bullied in school, goes to spend the summer with her great grandmother in her remote, crumbling old temple on the coast of Japan. Jiko suggests that Nao begin practicing zazen, or meditation, every day in order to find her “superpower” to help her overcome or deal with the situation. In Japanese pronunciation it is explained as “supah-pawah” or in Nao’s rendition, SUPAPAWA! What? Superheros, superpowers, comic strip style exclamations, zazen, and ancient Buddhist nuns? It’s a wonderful and witty juxtaposition of pop and traditional culture. Another one of my favorite touches–Jiko has a cell phone and text messages! And her messages are often like little modern koans. There are so many gems of Buddhist ideas and philosophies floating around in the novel in this way.
Speaking of floating, I had to stop counting the references in the book to floating, drifting, sinking, or otherwise moving on the current of life. Watery phenomenon and events— including storms, rain, tides, waves, tsunami, swimming, surfing, crashing into the sea–occur throughout the novel. Much of the movement provides an exchange between people, things, creatures, ideas, and culture on both sides of the Pacific, Japan and America. My kind of themes!
This is such an enjoyable read. I can’t quite get the book out of my head and keep picking it back up and rereading small sections. I so recommend that you grab a copy of this book before another day drifts by so you too can enjoy immersing yourself in the playful and profound depths of this novel.