Book Review: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being

By Ruth Ozeki

Cover of A Tale for the Time Being

I wasn’t very far into A Tale for the Time Being when I realized I had stumbled upon a treasure: an utterly captivating writer who had me immersed in a book like no other I’d read before.

The novel is undefinable in genre as it moves between different points of view. The backbone of the story is contained in a journal written by a Japanese teenager named Nao. A middle-aged writer, Ruth, finds the journal and other items inside a package washed up on the beach near her home on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. She suspects that Nao threw the package into the sea at the time of the Japanese tsunami four years earlier.

Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s story, which unfolds as she slowly reads the journal, and she also becomes obsessed with finding out the fate of Nao and her family. Did they perish in the tsunami?

A Tale for the Time Being is a masterpiece. I can’t do justice to it in any book review. Only one of the blurbs on the back cover comes close to giving an idea of the book’s depth and the cutting emotional power of its themes. Karen Joy Fowler writes:

A Tale for the Time Being is equal parts mystery and meditation. The mystery is a compulsive, gritty page-turner. The meditation—on time and memory, on the oceanic movement of history, on impermanence and uncertainty, but also resilience and bravery—is deep and gorgeous and wise. A completely satisfying, continually surprising, wholly remarkable achievement.

As I continued to read, I was impressed by the multiplicity of moods, stylistic techniques, and unpredictable plot developments. There are multiple stories within stories. It is partly the story of Nao’s family. Her father was, for a while, a software genius in Silicon Valley, but when he was fired he moved his family back to Japan. Unable to get a job there, he tried to commit suicide, and much of Nao’s journal is about both her own and her father’s depression and alienation from their society.

Yet Nao also has access to hope and inspiration from her great-grandmother, whom she calls “my old Jiko.” Jiko is a 104-year-old Buddhist nun with “superpowers,” and part of Nao’s journal recounts her story of the time she spends in the monastery with her great-grandmother.

Within the Hello Kitty lunchbox containing Nao’s journal Ruth also finds an old watch that she learns belonged to Nao’s great-uncle, Haruki I. (Nao’s father was named Haruki II after his uncle.) There are also old Japanese letters, and later a journal written in French by Haruki II mysteriously appears. When Ruth gets these documents translated by friends on the island, Haruki II’s story emerges. Everyone believed that he died a heroic death on a suicide mission during World War II—but his secret French diary reveals the truth about a more complicated kind of heroism.

Throughout this 400-page book, surprises constantly unfold. A Tale for the Time Being is suspenseful, humorous, tragic, philosophical, and heartwarming. Ozeki explores many of the most significant themes available to a writer of literature: despair and suicide, man’s brutality to his fellow humans (whether in the arena of a world war or in schoolyard bullying), heroism, and love that can overcome the deepest wounds. The philosophical depth of the book constantly challenges the reader to think: Is suicide selfish or not? Can it be honourable or heroic? The stories of Haruki I, Haruki II, and “old Jiko” reveal that heroism is not always obvious.

Love, too, can exist in ways that defy romantic stereotypes. The horrifying, ugly parts of the book are balanced by the warm and loving relationships between the characters. Nao and her father love each other in spite of his suicide attempts and his near-comatose depression. Nao and her great-grandmother Jiko feel a great tenderness towards each other. Haruki I’s diary reveals his love and respect for Jiko, his mother. Ruth’s marriage with Oliver demonstrates that people with different personalities and interests can love each other enduringly—and that humour can play a big role in love. Even the wealthy man who pays large sums of money to have sex with Nao when she is a bullied and lonely teenager treats her with gentleness, patience, and generosity.

As I continued reading A Tale for the Time Being, I was continually stimulated by surprises in the plot and questions the book provoked, including dilemmas related to modern technology: Internet porn, online bullying and privacy, human-machine interfaces and putting human controls on automated killing. A major theme is human interconnectivity: real, online, and—veering into the deeply philosophical and Zen-like here—cosmos-wide.

Although I was impressed by the multi-faceted, multi-genre nature of A Tale for the Time Being, I started to question whether it was “working” when magic realism crept in. At one point Ruth is reading Nao’s diary and she notices that the pages ahead are blank. There is nothing more to read. A few days later this has changed—more pages are now filled with Nao’s writing.

Late in the book, a quasi-rational explanation of all this is given. It is a “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics that posits the existence of parallel universes. In one of the many intriguing appendices of the book, Ozeki tells us that this “many worlds” idea was published by physicist Hugh Everett in 1957 in the Review of Modern Physics.

Ozeki also mentions the famous thought experiment about “Schröedinger’s Cat” that all physics students learn. There is a cat in a box; it could be electrocuted or not; dead or alive; it exists in both these states until the observer opens the box and looks in. At that point the cat is seen to be either dead or alive. But in a parallel universe, the cat exists in the alternate state. The idea is that the observer influences the outcome. Similarly, the novel suggests that Ruth (the observer/reader) is influencing how events unfold in Nao’s life. This makes no sense in our rational world. The events we are reading about in Nao’s diary happened years before Ruth is reading.

Some readers might like the quasi-quantum mechanical explanation that binds all the mysteries within the narrative together. I couldn’t decide whether or not this narrative manipulation is too contrived. However, it does leave the reader with a “feel-good” conclusion after all the cruelty and depression that feature so prominently in Nao’s story.

One quirky feature of the book that I liked was Ozeki’s frequent use of Japanese words and sayings, with footnotes including word definitions, origins, and Kanji characters. This adds a Japanese flavour and authenticity to the book, and left me with a better understanding of Japanese culture and identity. Ozeki also captures the characteristic “cuteness” of the way Japanese people sometimes use English as a second language. For example, in an email that Nao’s father writes to describe the software he created that allows people to erase unwanted traces of themselves from the Internet, he admits that “some people are too famous to ever attain Super Squeaky Clean.”

A Tale for the Time Being was one of those books that left me shaking my head in awe at the inventiveness of the author. Reading it was a mixture of pure delight and constant mental provocation.

***

Ruth Ozeki grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and is now a dual citizen of the United States and Canada. I assumed, because of the ways her novel includes Japanese culture and language, that she must be fluent in Japanese. Upon visiting her website (www.ruthozeki.com) I discovered that she is the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. She did post-graduate studies at Nara Women’s University in Japan. After that, she spent some years in Japan, working as a bar hostess and as an instructor at Kyoto Sangyo University. She also founded a language school. She is an award-winning novelist and filmmaker as well as a Zen Buddhist priest.

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