Nancy McKibben's Reviews > A Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
When I saw this title on the new books shelf in my library, I dashed over and snatched it up, delighted that Ozeki, the author of favorite book My Year of Meats, had finally written another novel. (There is a second one, All Over Creation, that I also liked.)
A Tale for the Time Being opens with the discovery of the diary of a Japanese teenage girl. It is mysteriously housed with a kamikaze watch and a packet of letters in Japanese and French in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has been encased in plastic and launched into the ocean, where it has washed up on a beach on a desolate island of British Columbia.
The diary’s discoverer is a writer, Ruth, and in the course of the novel, we hear from her in the third person as she tries to unravel the mystery of the diary, and from the diary writer, Nao, in the first person. Nao writes about her dysfunctional family - her mother is troubled and her father is depressed and suicidal, but she does have a supporter in her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, Jiko.
The story is many layered. As Nao reveals her story - she is being savagely bullied at her Japanese school - we also learn the stories of her uncle, a kamikaze pilot in World War II; her great-grandmother, an author and feminist, now a nun; her father, who is more than the loser he appears to be; and the stories of Ruth, her artist/activist husband Oliver, and their neighbors on the island.
The mystery of the diary is captivating, but Nao’s story is just one of the mysteries that the novel examines. For example, Nao is a play on words - it sounds like the English word “now” - and Nao and her Buddhist great-granny and Ruth and Oliver raise many questions about the meaning of time. Ruth and Oliver’s cat is named Schroedinger (like the cat in the famous parallel world thought experiment.) Nao’s story seems to take place in the present, as she writes it, but years have passed since the diary was thrown into the sea. Nao points out:
If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary, then you’ll know that the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction. It’s hopeless, really.But it’s interesting! The characters also think about art, the environment, philosophy, suicide, Buddhism, 9/11, the tsunami, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, national identity, and the link between reader and writer - the names of the characters Ruth and Oliver are the same as the writer and her husband, just to tease us a bit further. And the book is peppered with footnotes in which Ruth the character explains the meaning of various Japanese words and phrases - she is Japanese-American, as is the author Ruth.
When I was a little kid in Sunnyvale, I became obsessed with the word now. . . But in the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then. Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something. . . Stuff like this can drive you crazy.
I really like this author. Her characters are engaging people who think about big ideas without being pretentious or dull or preachy. Her plots are original. Her prose is snappy. She makes you think, and about things that matter. Read this novel - Nao!