Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is one of my all-time favorite novels. I also liked (though didn't love) her second one, All Over Creation. Then there was a long dry spell. Some years back I googled her in hopes of finding out she was working on a new novel, only to learn instead that she was studying to become a Buddhist priest* and, I either read or inferred, had dropped novel writing. O woe is me, I lamented. Oh no, a great author lost to the ether. I must of course on principle respect anyone's religious views even though I, as a Marxist, am a thoroughgoing materialist. Respect her inward turn though I might, I was bummed. One of our finest novelists, one of our most politically engaged novelists, down for the count.

Shows how much I know. It seems you can be a Buddhist monk or priest or nun and also still be a wonderful and fully politically engaged novelist. Duh: once again the depths of my ignorance plumbed. Really I should have remembered this on my own, that Buddhist practice, at least some variants of it, doesn't automatically negate political engagement, having more than once during my teens watched on the TV news horrific film of Buddhist monks in Vietnam immolating themselves to protest the U.S. war against their country. In fact in this newest novel Ozeki herself provides fascinating evidence of a stirring history of feminist and revolutionary nuns in Japan. One of the main characters here, a 104-year-old nun named Jiko, is based on one or more actual women, rebellious activists and/or writers. I'd be interested to try to find and read some of the real-life works mentioned in the course of this fictional Jiko's story.

Hers is only one of the lives examined. This is a book of stories within stories, layers opening onto newer deeper layers, all of it peeled back with an exquisite artistry that in my opinion exceeds anything Ozeki has accomplished before. I will note that there are magical elements, especially late in the book. I have no problem with such a literary technique if it works. Here, to my taste, it weakened rather than strengthened or deepened the book's overall power, but not to any marked degree. On balance, this is a terrific book, a beautiful story of human suffering and survival, as well as a meditation on the meaning and worth of fiction itself, or so it reads to me.

A Tale for the Time Being then, I'm happy to report, the first book I've read in 2014, starts my reading year on a high note. I started late, nearly two weeks in, because I spent the opening days of the new year along with the last weeks of 2013 horribly ill with shingles, so ill and in such pain that I couldn't read. Away with all that! Onward to a red reading year!

*In the original version of this post I erroneously referred to Ozeki studying to be a monk; she studied to be and in fact is a priest. More numbskullery on my part for which I humbly apologize.