How to know if you're dead in the cyber age:
I waited and waited for an email to show up from her, but it never did. Maybe this is what it's like when you die. Your inbox stays empty. At first, you just think nobody's answering, so you check your SENT box to make sure your outgoing mail is okay, and then you check your ISP to make sure your account is still active, and eventually you have to conclude that you're dead.
This is a passage, in the voice of a Japanese teen, from Ruth Ozecki's extraordinary novel A Tale for the Time Being. The book was introduced to me by a former student who recognized me at the baggage carousel on my return from a trip last week. She told me she had just finished the novel, which involves the relativity of time and quantum entanglement as well as the culture of suicide in Japan, how to become a "living ghost" and why there are sixty-five Zen moments in a single snap of the fingers. Flourishing the jacket, she declared, "I think I am here to let you know about this book." I am very happy she did.
The greatest plot twist is a dream in which a Canadian novelist whose name happens to be Ruth is guided by an unusual crow to meet a Japanese man who is sitting in a park bench in Tokyo. He has made a date with death; he is expecting to meet an online acquaintance with whom he has made a pact to commit mutual suicide. The encounter - a dream on one side of the Pacific, a physical event on the other - transfers a lost treasure from one time and place into another, saves lives and shifts worlds.
Ruth Ozecki's writing is superb, shifting effortlessly from Japanese high school slang to Zen paradox to fine naturalist observation to Many Worlds speculation. Here is Nao, the Japanese teen, on the atmosphere on the eve of a feast of the dead: "It was coming up to Obon, and spirits were cruising about like travelers arriving at the airport with their suitcases, looking for a place to check in."
Here is Ruth, the writer becoming dream traveler: "Her fingers press against the rag surface of her dream, recognize the tenacity of filaments and know that it is paper about to tear, but for the fibrous memory that still lingers there, supple, vascular and standing tall. The tree was past and the paper is present, and yet paper still remembers holding itself upright and altogether. Like a dream, it remembers its sap."