Monday, 7 October 2013

Booker Prize Shortlist, #2: My kind of time being, too

Ruth - the coincidence of names is deliberate - discovers a diary on the beach in British Columbia, washed up in a barnacle-encrusted lunchbox. Opening it, she is drawn into the world of fifteen-year-old Nao, who herself dances between cultures; her story encompasses ancient Buddhist nuns, the horror of her contemporary Japanese schooldays, and her idyllic existence in the aptly named Sunnyvale, California, where her dad worked as a computer programmer before losing his job. Nao tells Ruth - and us - that as a child, she was obsessed with the word 'now', its immediacy, the impossibility of truly experiencing it and pinning it down, and fittingly, in her diary, she is constantly dancing on a cliff edge. Suicide is a theme from the start, as early in the novel, we learn that Nao's dad tried to throw himself in front of a train, and Nao implies that her life will be a short one. (Indeed, she is soon attending her own funeral, but to explain how would be a spoiler). Nao's story becomes an obsession for Ruth, who feels lonely and isolated in her windswept home, where generators frequently blow and neighbourhoods are plunged into darkness, and she is soon neglecting her own work to run complicated internet searches, hoping to prove the real existence of the people and places Nao mentions. However, even as she uncovers clinical records and academic articles, they melt away at the click of a mouse, and she is forced to read ever further forward to try and hunt out answers.

It would be easy to become bedazzled by the technical brilliance and intellectual fireworks of this novel. Like Cloud Atlas, it seems to turn up original ideas on every page, and is unafraid to play with time, causality and quantum mechanics. However, to analyse A Tale for the Time Being simply by reference to its engagement with the theory of multiple universes and the Copenhagen interpretation would not be to do it justice - thrilled as I was to see references to these fascinating hypotheses after my foray into the world of physics. A novelist engaging with the idea of Schrodinger's cat is fun, but hardly novel - and simply to name-drop these famous conundrums would be shallow. For this reason, my least favourite part of this novel was the appendices, where I felt that Ruth - both the character and the novelist - felt far too much pressure to, as Charlotte Bronte put it, '[draw] a picture and then [write] underneath it the name of the object to be represented.'* The real power in Ruth and Nao's narratives comes from their literary, rather than theoretical, brilliance; they are both genuinely absorbing, filled with fascinating detail, and alight with a sense of place, where ever that place might be. For this reason, I would still warmly recommend this to those scared off, or bored by, quantum physics - it can be read without reference to Schrodinger at all.

This is not to say, however, that I wasn't captivated by the way that Ozeki plays with time. Pressing against the boundaries of the novel is something that novelists do too little of, and I loved the various devices that she uses in Nao's narrative to draw us into the text, including her missing pages, direct addresses, and sketches. Because the novel is so wonderfully written, these devices did not feel gimmicky, because Ozeki does not need to grab the reader's attention; she already has. However, there were two factors that perhaps made my reading of this book even more immersive and frankly, weird, than it will be for most readers. Firstly, I received a proof copy of this book via Amazon Vine in which Ozeki's editorial comments on the typesetting could still be read in the margins. Far from ruining my experience of the novel, however, these annotations enhanced it (especially as I thought until I was about halfway through that they were meant to be a part of the text, and had to check a bookshop copy to make sure... amazing.) Secondly, this, which is a note from Ruth to Nao at the end of the novel: 'I picture you now, a young woman of... wait, let me do the math... twenty-six? Twenty-seven?... Wherever you are, I know you are writing... I suspect you might be in graduate school, studying history...' As a history graduate student who had her twenty-seventh birthday while reading this book, I couldn't help feeling this might be addressed to me as well. Such is the ridiculous power of this novel. It may just have restored my faith in reading, and in Booker shortlists.

*This quotation comes from Charlotte's correspondence with her editor, WS Williams, on Villette, quoted in Mrs Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. It's well worth reading in full; the relevant paragraph is: 'You say that she [Lucy Snowe] may be thought morbid and weak, unless the history of her life be more fully given. I consider that she is both morbid and weak at times; her character sets up no pretensions to unmixed strength, and anybody living her life would necessarily become morbid. It was no impetus of healthy feeling which urged her to the confessional, for instance; it was the semi-delirium of solitary grief and sickness. If, however, the book does not express all this, there must be a great fault somewhere. I might explain away a few other points, but it would be too much like drawing a picture and then writing underneath the name of the object intended to be represented.'

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