A Tale for the Time Being

  • Ruth Ozeki
  • Viking
  • 432 pp.

A metaphysical onion of a novel, this fascinating story plays with ideas of time, memory, quantum mechanics, the computer age, history, writing, reading and much more.

Sometimes, very rarely, as you read a book, you get an eerie feeling that it was written just for you. So it was with Ruth, a writer who lives on a remote island in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, when she starts to read a diary she found washed up on the beach in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that also contained a packet of letters and a watch. So it was, as well, with me as I read Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being. How did she know just what resonated with me

To get back to the Ruth of the novel, she is immediately drawn into the life of Naoko Yasutani, a 16-year-old who lives in Tokyo, where she and her parents moved when her computer-programmer father lost his job in Silicon Valley. Nao writes, “In my heart, I’m American, and I believe I have a free will and can take charge of my own destiny,” which makes her a perfect target for vicious bullying by her classmates. Both she and her father, who is deeply ashamed that he cannot find work in Japan, plan to kill themselves. Ruth begins to search the Internet to find proof of Nao’s existence.

In the meantime, I sift through whatever clues I can to find out about Ruth Ozeki, the author, who deliberately blurs the line between herself and her character. I discover from the acknowledgments that both have husbands named Oliver, and from the dedication that they share a mother named Masako. From the author bio, I find that Ruth Ozeki, like Ruth of the novel, lived in New York City and on a remote island in Canada. Both are of Japanese descent, and know a lot about the culture and history of Japan. Ruth, the character, has been mired in a 10-year project to write a memoir about caring for her mother as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Ruth Ozeki hasn’t published a book since 2003. Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest, Nao’s 104-year-old grandmother is a Zen Buddhist nun.

A Zen questioning of our perceptions of reality permeates the novel. Time, memory, language, dreams, fate, free will are all, in the end, at some sub-atomic, cosmic level, one and the same. With the stated goal of recording “my last days on earth,” Nao muses extensively over the meaning of time. “The word now always felt especially strange and unreal to me because it was me, at the least sound of it was. Nao was now and had this whole other meaning.” Her diary, bought at a fancy crafts store in Harajuku, is a “hack” of an old copy of À la recherche du temps perdu, the pages taken out and replaced with blank ones. She calls herself a “time being,” quoting the Zen master Dōgen, “Time itself is being ... 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.

The story is as many-layered as an onion. Nao’s suicidal father is named after an uncle, Haruki, whose secret diary, written in French, is discovered wrapped up in a packet of his letters that Nao placed in the lunchbox. How the secret diary ended up in the lunchbox is just one of the story’s cosmic mysteries of time and place. The letters, in Japanese, are written to his mother, Nao’s grandmother, and very gently and diplomatically describe his life at tokkotai (suicide bomber) training camp. The secret diary reveals the sickening truth of the cruelty to which he was subjected. Like Nao, he is a perfect target for ijime (bullying), a sensitive soul who studied French and philosophy in an era when his country was plumbing the depthless capacity of man’s inhumanity to man. It turns out that both Harukis made heroic but doomed stands for right and humanity, and it is up to Ruth to fix things by “playing origami with time.” Because Ruth is a novelist, she can do things like that.

(I Googled “Ruth Ozeki Haruki Murakami” to see whether the Harukis might have been named for the Japanese novelist who is similarly interested in themes of alternate realities and the elasticity of time, and found an entry on her blog where she listed him as an inspiration, admitting that she had not yet read his latest novel, but was waiting until hers was published.)

The relationship of the novelist to the reader is an intimate and yet very unequal one. The reader feels a profound connection with, and an almost intimate knowledge of, the author. The author, on the other hand, knows nothing about the reader, and must take a leap of faith that somehow, somewhere, the ideal reader is out there, who will care desperately about the story, the characters and the world that the she has created. 

Which brings us to me, the reviewer. If you, the reader, clicked on my name at the top of this review, it would take you to a brief bio, where you would find a few clues as to why A Tale for the Time Being resonated so strongly with me. And that made me wonder if the book, Schrödinger’s Cat-like, changed every time a new reader opened it up. Same words, same story, but a completely different revelation.

As Nao writes in her diary, “maybe none of these things will happen except in my mind and yours, because, like I told you, together we’re making magic, at least for the time being.” Magic, indeed.

Alice Stephens is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books.


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