The World Will Be Better For This

This post is a review of Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale For The Time Being, and it contains one (mild) spoiler. I’ll tell you when the spoiler’s coming so that you can avert your eyes if you don’t want to see it.

Dogen, Dogen, Dogen. I can’t get enough of the guy these days. When it comes to medieval Japanese Zen masters, he’s definitely my top of the pops.

To be specific, I’m obsessed with his essay Uji: The Time-Being. I keep reading it over and over. It’s poetic, beautiful, complex, direct, profound, opaque. Sometimes I think I know what he’s talking about and then three second later I haven’t a clue. If you’ve never read it yourself, stop this and go do it now. It’s really short, and it might change your life, if you let it. I’m not kidding.

Anyway, when I found out about this novel directly inspired by Dogen’s essay, I obviously had to check it out.

And when I turned to the first page and saw that the epigraph was from the essay’s opening lines, I thought, Yeah, baby!

And not long after that, the disappointment kicked in.

I don’t know what I had expected, really. Maybe I had thought that the novel was going to be like the essay – difficult and mind-blowing and cryptic and life-changing and only 2000 words long.

Instead, it turned out to be a work of respectable literary fiction, with characters and a storyline.

Worse: it seemed to be metafiction.

Even worse than that: it wasn’t opaque at all. In fact, it was explaining everything, clearly and explicitly and sometimes at length. Every character’s backstory was laid out. Every allusion was unpacked. One protagonist’s name was a thumping pun. There were footnotes; chrissakes, there were appendices.

Goddammit, how am I supposed to get to feel clever and pleased with myself for knowing all about Dogen if this Ruth character (sic) keeps blurting it all out to any old reader that comes along? No, I was not enjoying this book at all.

And then, on page 243, something amazing happened:

(this is where the little spoiler pops up, so if you don’t want to see it, skip down past the next illustration)

a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun sang a karaoke version of The Impossible Dream.

That one incident was so funny, sweet, moving and profound that my whole experience of the novel suddenly flipped, and I got it. I realised that actually this book is amazing.

What’s more, I felt as if it had been written especially for me, which no doubt was why I had resisted it so hard for the first half. Because to be honest, once I recognised it, it began to freak me out a little bit.

Middle-aged woman who moves from a big city to a small island? Check.

Integration of dreaming and waking realities? Check.

Time travel? Check.

Speculations about the coincidences between Dogen’s philosophy and quantum theory? Check, check and checkmate. Before I started reading this book, I’d just written a short and inelegant essay on Dogen and quantum for the forthcoming “deep time” issue of Peculiar Mormyrid. Boy, do I feel a chump now.

In short, this novel is scarily wonderful.

Ruth Ozeki, I know you’re not reading this, but I’m thanking you anyway. Sadhu!

Credits: Book cover reproduced under fair use. Dogen portrait images in the public domain. The Impossible Dream audio from the Andy Williams YouTube channel.

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