Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Shit: A Tale for the Time Being

I really, really wish that I was going to be able to do justice to Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. It's a phenomenal fucking book and it's kind of disappointing to end on this sort of low note. Luckily I'm not actually going to; there'll be a bonus post up later today.

Part of the reason that I am not going to be doing as good of a reading as I want to for this book is that I got a little ambitious with it; as I was reading, I decided that I wanted to review it using Anthony Paul Smith's new book, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought. So I got an ebook copy and got a premium ebook reader to be able to notate it; but then it turned out that the premium ebook reader started crashing aggressively as soon as notes were taken. I never managed to finish APS' book because of that, and the residual disappointment lead me to put off writing about Ozeki until the last minute.

The reason I thought the two might go good together is that I began to think of Ozeki's books in terms of ecologies before APS' came out. Large sections of the book are dedicated to discussions of things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the introduction of invasive species of flora or fauna into habitats; Ruth, the novelist/protagonist of the novel, is married to a man named Oliver, one of whose art projects is the development of fauna in specific places that will be neither invasive nor wiped out by global warming. These mostly appear in the form of asides, seeming to exist around the main narrative of Nao's diary and Ruth's mounting obsession with discovering the girl who wrote it, and there's never really an overt synthesis, but they seemed to me to slowly become the heart of the story.

I first came across Ruth Ozeki because I read her book My Year of Meats for a class; I remember then thinking that, based on the back materials and the description we received of it before we read it that I was not going to be super interested. She surprised me then, in something of a similar way to how A Tale for the Time Being surprised me; Ozeki is a writer who writes apparently exclusively about primary subjects that I have little interest in, but fills them out in such gorgeous ways that I end up totally in love with the novels themselves.

Part of this is her really interesting use of metafiction, or, to perhaps be more accurate, frames; with My Year of Meats it was the documentary frame, with A Tale for the Time Being the use of the diary and her own self-insertion. These frames, described, always feel like they ought to come off as fairly precious; and yet they always end up being phenomenal.

One of the main reasons I jumped on the book was the presence of Hello Kitty, another thing that I'm not going to really talk about all that much. Which seems, actually, in this case, kind of accurate; Ruth finds Nao's diary, written in a copy of Proust's In Search of Lost Time that's been de-paged and filled with writing paper, inside of a Hello Kitty lunchbox. If those two things don't make it pretty clear why I was so excited to read this book, I don't know what will. I kind of really enjoyed, too, how Ozeki just kind of let those things be; there are some reflections from Nao on the fact that she is writing in Proust, but they're largely in passing, and the Kitty lunchbox is allowed to simply be in its specificity without justification.

This is tied to both Ozeki's use of frames, which generally seem from a description like dull metafictional tricks but end up invigorating the core narrative, and her move towards an ecological aesthetics; these sorts of pregnant images are not so much additions of texture (as, say, the descriptions of objects in rooms in Dostoevsky could be argued to be) as they are elements in the representation of a dynamic system. A Hello Kitty lunchbox, in an Ozeki, is both life, needing no justification beyond its own existence, and energy, an abstraction organized by its status first as consumption and last by its expenditure. And as the lunchbox goes, so goes the documentary, or the record of reading that diary.

This goes partway in explaining, I think, why A Tale for the Time Being ends with such an awkward extended rumination on Schrödinger's Cat. It's still awkward, in the way that a just-wrong metaphor always is; as a development of the idea of quantum indeterminacy on the macro level it suggests that the production of abstractions called literature functions at the level of the general to reproduce the workings of the particular. More than that, though, its own particularities are caught up in the ideas of consumption and expenditure and existence as observation and self-organization. It's just-wrong because, while it holds all the keys to the tale, it focuses them in the wrong direction, suggesting that it is the point, rather than the color, of the thought experiment which makes it useful.

I got the impression, both from the book itself and from seeing a few scattered reactions to it, that people much preferred Nao's story to Ruth's; and yet I find myself remembering the beats of hers, from the grandmother to the crow to the conference, much better. Which isn't to say, of course, that Nao's story isn't phenomenal; just, I suppose, that it feels to me in retrospect much more like a story. Which leaves me to say that that is something I can respect but not really love, not in the ways that I love the lengthy passages about the power outage or the contrived silliness of the way it preempts Ruth's googling, or the shot of elation immediately dissolving into disappointment at the academic article and its paywall.

I guess that's it? I could probably ramble on more, and there's a part of me that wants to, but I'm calling it; this Year in Shit is done. Thanks for playing along.

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