A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.
March 15, sometime around 10pm, maybe over Idaho? South Dakota? The hazy blue twilight of recycled plane air. Four hundred words typed into the Apple notes app, on a screen that’s been cloroxed, and cloroxed again.
There’s always a certain surreality to flying at night, when they dim the cabin lights and the ambient hum of the engines seems to suspend time. On this flight, I felt even more disconnected from reality than usual; hovering thirty thousand feet above the planet, I had the strange sense of viewing myself from outside a fishbowl, seeing, somehow, that what the future would call “crucial turning points in history” was happening to me, now.
So what does it mean to live in time? To live in history? To live at all?
Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being opens with the honest, irreverent diary of Japanese sixteen-year-old Nao Yasutani. Almost every page holds an unexpected development. We learn she is planning to kill herself; that a Canadian writer named Ruth is reading this diary nearly ten years after it was written; that Nao’s father is suicidal. Every new piece of information adds a voice to the growing polyphony that comprises this novel: Nao’s great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun; Nao’s father, a software engineer and conscientious objector; Nao’s great-uncle, a WWII kamikaze pilot. Each of their stories, independent in their own right, weave in and out of one another, to make a sum greater than its parts.
While the plot, of course, is fiction, Ozeki bolts the story firmly in the major, traumatic, historical, events of our world. The brutality of World War II is what sets the stage for Nao’s great-uncle’s crucial decision. The 2000 dot-com crash is, ostensibly, what caused Nao’s father to lose his cushy Silicon Valley job. Ruth remembers 9/11 vividly; it’s also a pivotal scene for Nao’s father, who realizes with consternation that technology he worked on might be used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami is what Ruth speculates brought Nao’s diary to the Pacific coast.
But history is the backdrop: we learn about a magical crow, Ruth’s mother’s forgetfulness, the beauty and isolation of the Pacific Northwest. In between suicide attempts, Nao’s father folds intricate origami insects from the thin pages of a philosophy encyclopedia (he doesn’t like Nietzsche, so he uses the pages from the Nietzsche sections of the encyclopedia). Ruth’s husband, Oliver, is an environmental artist who hopes to plant a grove of trees as an installation that comes to fruition on a planetary timescale. When Nao visits her great-grandmother at the temple, they take baths together and Nao helps scrub her papery skin. Nao describes in graphic detail the bullying she endures at school, and the way that she is treated when she briefly works at a maid cafe as a sex worker. The pivotal moment in the novel is Ruth’s dreamlike intervention into Nao’s world, that seems to change outcomes in Nao’s life and in Ruth’s.
In other words, the un-magical parts of the plot are just as realistic as the magical realism parts of the book—which is to say, not very.
Ozeki spares no detail, however, in description: perhaps it doesn’t matter what’s real or not. The impossibility of the story plays with scale: almost nothing in the book is even remotely likely, which makes everything crucially important, every minute element a key contributor to the book’s overall messages. The specifics are too particular—and, indeed, too impossible—to have been accidental. The novel, therefore, requires a suspension of disbelief, and the willingness to accept what may not be possible opens up space to consider what is possible within the limits of our reality.
Ozeki’s characters live through history. Historical events happened around them, but they were not passive or powerless, refusing to accept that history would simply happen to them. Nao’s great-uncle alone could not change the trajectory of the war, but his ultimate refusal to partake was his decision to make. Half a century later, Nao’s father alone could not have prevented military technology from being developed, but his refusal to develop them was his decision to make. Natural disasters are unpreventable, no individual is wholly responsible for war, but our responses are the sum total of our own decisions.
A Tale for the Time Being, then, is an extended meditation on the joy, the miracle, the absurdity, of being. Our existence is fundamentally contingent on vast networks of interconnectivity and interdependence, and as individuals, we are but a speck in the universe of beings, past, present, and future. Rather than a reason to withdraw from the world, however, this is a reason to participate in life, to appreciate every mundane detail. This requires us to accept the limits of what can be known, to relinquish the idea of perfect knowledge or total control, yet simultaneously exercise what agency we can—to act on the strength of our own convictions.
What is the half-life of information? Does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it? Pixels need power. Paper is unstable in fire and flood. Letters carved in stone are more durable, although not so easily distributed, but inertia can be a good thing….
Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit? What is gyre memory? How do we measure the half-life of its drift?
For the past few paragraphs, I’ve been struggling to describe what makes this book quite so special; maybe it would be easier to describe what it’s felt like to read. When I came across this passage in the book, I felt a jolt of recognition: the idea of information having a half-life is novel yet at once completely familiar. I’ve sometimes felt that the news of the day, the world itself, is what scrolls by in that infinite gyre of my twitter feed. My attention is fragmented, scattered, dispersed. It feels like my existence has flattened, and the boundaries between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy, my world and the book’s world, have blurred. Ruth’s reality, too, is unsettled, as her physical world begins to fluctuate with the diary world she reads: the diary changes in length, a research paper disappears from the internet, her cat is lost and presumed dead but reappears days later.
Quarantine is strange because it’s forced our online identities to be more tightly mapped onto our real identities than ever; I am real insofar as my relationships with other people are real, and almost all of that is now online. My tweets, posts, and messages have a half-life too. I am unconvinced that cogito ergo sum. It is strange, to say the least, for my digital self to almost entirely substitute for my whole self, to feel so unmoored from the physical reality of living in a body while simultaneously being in circumstances that force hypercognizance of every subtle change in our health.
All of our work now also has a half-life. These days, most of our knowledge, research, writing, and art is produced—or at least communicated—online. Perhaps that least stable medium of all: after all, pixels need power, but information hosted on the internet needs not just power, but an entire network and infrastructure dedicated to keep it there.
Stand on the shoulders of giants, the front page of Google Scholar pronounces in bold green text. Our work extends the life of work from everyone who came before us, whether it’s the tools that make our work possible, or a chain of backlinked citations. The history of science is anything but linear, but who wants to admit that their work might not be a step in the direction of truth? In the book, it’s only by recovering the past that Nao and her father are able to understand how to create a future. In our drive to continually build what’s next, to create new knowledge, what have we forgotten from the past? What kernels of knowledge have we lost? How do I know whether my work is sound, useful, even marginally meaningful?
Frankly, I’ll probably have to accept that I’ll never fully know the answer. The last few pages of A Tale for a Time Being are about quantum physics, the possibility of every decision splintering reality into multiple worlds. It’s a plot resolution in both spheres of the book—Nao’s father builds new technology that manipulates digital memory in quantum realms, while in a nod to Schrodinger, quantum physics is what explains Ruth’s neither-dead-nor-alive cat. But like everything else in the novel, Ozeki’s treatment of quantum physics is too deliberate and too detailed to be coincidental.
It completes the story, but also makes a demand of us: to accept the possibilities of the unknown, to give every fractal self a chance to live.
I’d much rather know, but then again, not-knowing keeps all the possibilities open. It keeps all the worlds alive.
(Initially submitted as part of final portfolio for Creative Nonfiction, spring '20)