- Ozeki's Mirror RoomsPosthumanism and A Tale for the Time Being
The mirror room is where, every day, we confront our hopes and our desires, our delusions and disappointments, our aging and our mortality, and there's something sweet and sad and incredibly brave about our willingness to do so.—Ruth Ozeki, The Face: A Time Code
In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The reader's recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth.—Marcel Proust, Le Temps Retrouvé (quoted in Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being)
It is a truth widely acknowledged that the novel is intrinsically linked both to the rise of the nation and to the modern notion of the individual. [End Page 117] Indeed, its very structure is guided by the experience of the individual, a set of ideas that take as their premise the ethical underpinnings of the Enlightenment and the philosophical context of humanism.1 Increasingly dramatic changes in our understanding of these assumptions then inevitably lead to a reexamination of the novel, on one hand, and of what it teaches us about that human experience, on the other. Technological evolutions since the twentieth century, together with political, communal, economic, and aesthetic events in the first decade of the twenty-first, have shifted the discourse of posthumanism from the marginalized realm of genre fiction to center stage. What is the impact of this shift, how does the novel relate or reflect the possibilities of posthumanism, what new critical questions does the posthuman pose, indeed, how can we put the contested category to practical use as literary critics? These are some of the questions I hope to address in this article. For this purpose, I will be focusing mainly on a single primary text, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being (2013b) (hereafter, Time Being), as both its content and its structure seem to explicitly consider these questions, challenging the stability of such categories as character, fiction, realism, and humanism, while simultaneously cherishing their value.
The novel, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, intertwines the stories of three principal characters: Nao, a 16-year-old Japanese girl who intends to kill herself after documenting the story of Jiko, her 104-year-old great-grandmother–nun; Ruth, a fictional version of the author, who, living on a remote Canadian island (alternately called Whaletown, Desolation Sound, and the Island of the Dead), finds a kamikaze watch washed up on the shore as the debris from the 2011 tsunami, together with Nao's diary, which she proceeds to read; and Haruki #1, Nao's great-uncle, a kamikaze pilot who haunts the memory and eventually the life of some of the characters in the story. The novel exposes a series of narrators, subjects, and readers as it challenges the feasibility of the historical tale. This vulnerability is most explicitly explored vis-à-vis Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, the cover of which Nao uses to hide her diary. This search, a yearning to retain memory and attain meaning, is a powerful literary conceit that runs through the text, as the novel suggests that stability, certainty, and even the physicality of bodies and histories are both unstable and absolutely necessary to ensure [End Page 118] historical accountability. This is not a tale invoking a postmodern flimsiness of history. Rather, through its bleak emphasis on the violence of nature but also of bullying, torture, war, and prostitution, the novel urges a complex concentration on the physical, not its abandonment, to produce a responsible history. My aim is to show how a material, embodied, and responsible history is articulated in novel form. By focusing on Ozeki's novel as my primary case study, I hope to illustrate how literature, particularly speculative literature, offers a unique place for these ideas to play out. The ironies of...