- Planetary Relatedness
Oxford University Press
592 Pages; Print, $65.00
432 Pages; Print, $16.00
Homesick for New York City after losing her mother to Alzheimer’s, Ruth walks the shore of her new adopted home on a British Columbia island. This is where she first encounters—via bubbly scribbling in a carefully wrapped, washed-up diary—a teenaged student from California named Nao, who is wracked by her inability to fit in with her classmates in Japan and to connect with her depressed father, Harry. The dynamic reader-writer relationship that emerges as a result of the diary’s oceanic passage embodies the worlding of authorship in the novel, with the fictionalized novelist Ruth fostering a friendship with a fellow American exile that crosses spatial and temporal boundaries. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Ozeki’s latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, is far more ambitious and experimental in scope than either of her two previous novels. For instance, Tale includes the voices of several author-characters and takes the form of a metafictional, self-reflexive narrative: like the real-life author, the character “Ruth Ozeki” has an artist husband named Oliver and lives—at least part of her time—on an island near Vancouver. Meanwhile, in an example of the magical realist moments scattered throughout the novel, the people in Nao’s diary cross “story world” borders to haunt Ruth’s dreams.
Not fully representing the theme of the “End of the Nation-State” that brought Ruth and her husband together at an artists’ residency, the novel nevertheless puts forth the notion of nationality as having fluid and border-crossing qualities—that is, a sense of the planetary—similar to that which characterizes Ruth and Nao themselves as they expand and import a global presence into their understanding of Americanness. Nao associates her national identity with memory, noting that, because her first memories take place in California, she and her father were thus “American, at least in our hearts.” Connecticut-born Ozeki, the daughter of a Caucasian-American father and Japanese mother, sports a biography that further complicates the variable sense of national belonging, having studied in Massachusetts and Japan and created films and documentaries for American and Japanese television in New York. She now maintains dual Canadian and American citizenship, living her life in both British Columbia and New York City. It is no coincidence that, in a conversation with a friend about home countries, Ozeki’s fictional namesake in Tale wryly observes, “I don’t know what home would feel like.” In fact, the title itself takes this notion of home as a transient—and ultimately planetary—space from Zen Buddhist teacher Dōgen Zenji’s work Shōbōgenzō (c. 13th century), which Ruth summarizes by noting, “Time itself is being, he wrote, and all being is time…In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” This interconnection across time and national borders is the hub around which the protagonists’ lives rotate, instilling in Ruth a sense of urgent commitment and relatedness that fuels her unlikely friendship with a teenager writing nearly a decade earlier and across the Pacific Ocean.
Whereas Ozeki finds the planetary in the American by breaking “story world” boundaries across time and space, Paul Giles’s latest study, Antipodean America (2013), ultimately advances a very similar argument through a more historical and geopolitical lenses. Moving away from the centrality of the West as well as his own previous focus on the transatlantic, Giles spans American literary history from Crèvecoeur to Pynchon in order to make a case for Australasia’s lasting and indelible impression on American literature. By picking out the, oftentimes, sinuous and subtle American literary mentions of Australia and New Zealand—the US’s figurative antipodes or what Charles Brockden Brown, Poe, Melville, and others referred to as “New Holland”— Giles argues that Australia emerges...