A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is expansive, provocative and sometimes rather confusing. But that’s okay. It’s supposed to be.
Ozeki, an independent filmmaker and the author of the novels My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, is also an ordained Buddhist priest. Like a wise but playful teacher, she guides us through her latest novel by periodically questioning what we know of the story and how we know it.
It can leave you scratching your head – for starters, the main character of the novel seems to be Ruth Ozeki herself, or at least, a fairly obvious facsimile of her – but ultimately, the effect of such riddles is charming, earnest and very much a departure from your typical literary novel. Especially considering the heartbreak that takes place on these pages, you’ll be glad for someone wise leading you along.
Among the heavy subjects A Tale for the Time Being takes on: quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, suicide bombers, Proust, the burst of the first dot-com bubble, September 11th, the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. For fans of more quotidian drama, there is Alzheimer’s, bullying, clinical depression and corporate layoffs. And yet A Tale for the Time Being manages to be a slyly funny and often rather cheerful read, despite the gruesome places that it is willing to go.
In the spring of 2011, a novelist named Ruth finds a barnacle-covered package on the beach near her home on Cortes Island, B.C. Wrapped tightly within are a Japanese teenage girl’s handwritten journal, a Second World War bomber pilot’s wristwatch, a packet of letters and an even older journal written in French. Ruth and a crew of oddball fellow islanders surmise that this is the beginning of a wave of detritus rolling through the Pacific after the Japanese tsunami. Ozeki’s first apparent talent is her ability to capture perfectly the vague but persistent dread global onlookers felt in the weeks following the tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
This dread seeps into Ruth’s fervent project of translating the girl’s journal and understanding how the other pieces fit with it. As the Cortes Island characters mull over the state of the ocean outside their front door, the tsunami begins to feel immediate and just as threatening to the reader. In fiction, it is an undersung gift to be able to bring infamous world events to the page with real grace and nuance. Ozeki does this without even blinking.
A Tale for the Time Being’s other narrator is 15-year-old Nao Yasutani, the journal’s author. In a “maid café” in Akibahara Electric Town in Tokyo, Nao records the events of her days – her dad’s suicide attempts, the brutal beatings that greet her at the schoolyard each morning – contrasted with happier memories of her childhood in Silicon Valley, Calif., where she had lived while her dad was working as a software engineer.
Nao has also recently got to know her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun from the Sendai province of Japan. Jiko’s Zen teachings and family stories fill Nao with strength, but they also confuse her sense of right and wrong, of bravery and purpose. At a loss, she begins to consider suicide.
Ozeki casts Nao in stark contrast to Ruth – young, outspoken, decisive. At first, Nao’s sections cause anxiety, because a contemporary 15-year-old’s delicate and fragile psyche are in the hands of a mature literary author, and there are so many opportunities to screw her up. So it is a huge relief when that anxiety shifts to what’s happening to Nao on the page. In Nao, Ozeki draws an unforgettable character unashamed to depict her sad and complicated life as it happens to her.
Dismayed at the thought that Nao didn’t survive her rocky adolescence, or the eventual tidal wave that hit Japan, Ruth searches the Internet to find out what has become of her. At the height of Ruth’s obsession with Nao’s fate, the journal begins to play tricks on Ruth. Words disappear; pages are lost. The novel takes a turn for magical realism that might lose some of her readers who are enamoured with the very real worlds of Tokyo and Cortes Island that were so engaging in the first two-thirds of the book.
But Ruth has hit a spiritual block, and until she changes something in herself – some belief or stubbornness of human nature – she will never reach the end of Nao’s book. Ruth is forced to accept that, as the reader, far down the road in time, she may never fully know the end of Nao’s story – a strange and uncomfortable feeling for a novelist. Most readers, however, are not novelists, and might not pity Ruth in her metaphysical struggles, but rather feel impatient with Ozeki to get on to the good stuff – i.e. what happens to Nao?
In its own way, A Tale for the Time Being does eventually offer a satisfying resolution to both Ruth (hazy, faith-based and deeply cerebral) and the reader (hard evidence, in the form of an e-mail). This book pays its deepest homage to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but it also shares much in common with the books of Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Anton Wilson. Like them, Ozeki manages to turn existential conundrums into a playful, joyful and pleasantly mind-bending dialogue between reader and writer. Here’s hoping that this book will find its way to an audience just as excited to participate in it.
Lucy Silag is the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.