"Spooky action at a distance": Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being

For me, the final pieces of the puzzle came together in my head after reading a footnote to the second-to-last appendix of Ruth Ozeki's charming, painful, and incredibly moving new novel, A Tale For The Time Being.

Not to give too much of the story away, or reveal the twists in the tale, or even to hint at the fates of any of the cats who all have their roles to play, but you should know that one of the cats is named Schrodinger.

The appendix in question discusses the thought experiment of Schrodinger's Cat - the basics of this experiment are well-known. Imagine a cat sealed in a box with a device that can release a poisonous gas and cause the cat to die, but this only happens if atoms of a radioactive particle in the box decay. A Geiger counter will detect the decay of the particle and release the gas, killing the cat. There is an equal chance of the atom decaying and not decaying. There is an equal, and related, chance of the cat dying or not dying. The atom's fate and the cat's fate are described by Schrodinger as "entangled".

The footnote I mentioned says that Einstein later described "entanglement" as "spooky action at a distance."

In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki is telling the stories of two women: Nao Yasutani, a Japanese schoolgirl dealing with her awkward re-entry into Japanese society after living abroad in the United States for many years with her parents, and a novelist named Ruth, living a pleasantly hermetic existence with her husband Oliver and their cat Schrodinger (more often called Pesto, because of his pesty nature) on an isolated British Columbia island, stymied by the lack of progress on her years-in-the-writing memoir.

Two years after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Ruth discovers a sealed freezer bag among the seaweed and clutter on the beach. Inside the freezer bag is a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Inside the lunchbox is a sort of time capsule - a packet of letters written in Japanese, a journal written in fresh paper mounted in the boards of an old edition of Proust, and an old wristwatch. The journal was written by Nao - her life story and stories about her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104 year-old Buddhist nun. The letters and the wristwatch came from Nao's family. 

How they ended up in a lunchbox in a freezer bag on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean is the mystery that starts the novel moving.

Ruth reads the story of Nao from the journal and tries to investigate - from a distance of time and space - how the journal came to be in her possession and what happened to Nao after the journal ends.  The story of Nao and the story of Ruth and the ways in which they are "entangled" is what winds up the clockwork of this novel.

The messy, complicated, overlapping nature of these entanglements – Nao's school life, her parent's grown-up dramas, her relationship with Jiko, her ancestor's fate, Ruth's home life with her husband, her fraught friendships with other islanders, the fate of Pesto the cat, the nature of external influence over an author's words – is all described in careful, patient prose that draws the reader into the widening gyre of the tale. 

It's a set of journeys and explorations well worth taking.

Watch The Book Trailer:

A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Viking | 9780670026630 | $28.95 | March 2013

More, elsewhere:
Ruth Ozeki: web | twitter
A profile of Ozeki and the story of the novel in the NYT.