Zen and the Art of Quantum Mechanics: Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale For The Time Being’ #AW80Books

It’s not often that I’m lost for words, but I’ve been struggling with how to begin writing about Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time BeingMy mind has been completely blown by it. In the aftermath of reading, the novel’s ideas, images, connections and possibilities are still triggering explosions of mental fireworks in my mind. There is so much in it, it’ll be hard to do it justice in a short review.

Ruth, a blocked writer living in Canada, discovers a package washed up along the coastline near where she lives.(This will be my Canada stopover in our Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge/#AW80Books, by the way.) Inside there is a diary, hidden between the covers of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Ruth becomes absorbed in reading the thoughts and feelings of Nao, the diarist, who tells of her family’s relocation from the US to Japan after her father lost his lucrative job. Life in Japan is hard. She is bullied, her father is suicidal, and she can see no way forward. When her mother sends her to stay with her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun, in a small temple in the mountains, she finds respite from her torments, and there she learns about her uncle who was destined to end his life as a kamikaze pilot during the second world war. His story unfolds through diaries and letters of his own, and as the truth emerges, it could have a huge impact on the fates of Nao and her father.

Although separated by time and space, Ruth’s reading of the diary seems to forge a connection between her and Nao, and their separate narratives begin to interweave. In fact, Ruth’s intervention has far-reaching implications on the other lives in the novel. Throughout the novel, the concept of time is explored and even played with. ‘Nao’ is pronounced ‘now’; her diary is secreted between the cover pages of Proust’s great opus on time, and the text is richly peppered with philosophical questions about the nature of time, being, the concept of ‘now’ and ‘the moment’. However, this profundity never feels laboured or heavy, rather it feels refreshingly curious.

Ozeki’s writing is wonderful. I have never encountered a novel with a multiple narrative that felt so seamless and natural. In retrospect, there must have been a great deal of embedding of words and the interweaving into the text, associations relating to concepts of time, and yet it reads engagingly and effortlessly. In particular, the scenes in which Nao stays with her great-grandmother old Jiko in the temple were so beautifully evoked, I felt transported there, to the lush green peacefulness and tranquility. It made me want to start meditating! As the novel draws to a close, the plot becomes ever more fantastical, which works as an ingenious platform to explore questions raised by quantum physics and how similar they are to those of Zen Buddhism.

I found these similarities fascinating. A few years ago I got quite interested in quantum theory. Admittedly, even after reading all the books that the local library had to offer I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but I happened to see a documentary about the Quantum physicist, Hugh Everitt, made by his son, Eels frontman, Matt Everitt. Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives not only provided an interesting insight into the man, but really helped to explain why the seemingly inexplicable behaviour of quantum particles is so important.  If you’re already interested in quantum mechanics or, like me, you’ve struggled long enough to get your head around the significance of Schrödinger’s cat, I highly recommend it, especially after reading A Tale For The Time Being. (Everitt and his response to the problem of Schrödinger’s cat is outlined in the Appendices at the end of the novel).

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/58603054″>PARALLEL WORLDS, PARALLEL LIVES</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/eels”>EELS</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of what is an exceptional novel – I’ve not even touched on the environmental aspects of the novel, and its observations on the relationship between human beings and the natural world. A Tale for the Time Being tells a unique and powerful story. I found it funny, warm, thought-provoking and deeply moving. How it didn’t win the Man Booker prize, I can’t fathom. (Admittedly, thus far, I’ve only read four out of the six books shortlisted in 2013, but I’ll definitely be reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – if it beat this, it has to be damn good!)

Lastly, because it’s hard to discover that your dad is not just a genius, but one of the most important scientific minds of the century, here’s Matt doing his thing too.