A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Viking Adult; 432 pages; $28.95).
The relationship between a writer and a reader is sacrosant. Nowhere is that truer than in Ruth Ozeki’s wildly imaginative, ambitious, and brilliant novel A Tale for the Time Being. Ozeki redefines that sacred link between novelist and bibliophile and simultaneously blurs the lines between fiction and reality, exhibiting an unbridled and whimsical style so convincing and creative that the reader feels part of the story. Ozeki intertwines multiple voices in her parallel narrative: a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, a Japanese kamikaze pilot, a troubled Japanese teenage girl, and a writer named Ruth.
She opens with the unforgettable tale of Nao, a teen living in Tokyo’s Akiba Electricity Town. “My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” she writes. “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” “Nao” is eerily similar to “now,” and her name is a deliberate play on words that lends even more power and urgency to this story.
Depressed and anxious from being bullied by her classmates, Nao is an outcast with one friend half a world away. She is a desperately unhappy young woman who seriously contemplates suicide. “The truth is that very soon I’m going to graduate from time…I just turned sixteen and I’ve accomplished nothing at all…Do I sound pathetic? I don’t mean to. I just want to be accurate. Maybe instead of graduate, I should say I’m going to drop out of time.” First, though, she vows to write down her great-grandmother’s life story in a diary. Not only does Nao provide insight into the life of her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, but she also illuminates her own existence.
As Nao writes in her diary, she wonders about the person who will one day read her words. “You wonder about me. I wonder about you. Who are you and what are you doing?…Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap? Does her forehead smell like cedar trees and fresh sweet air?” Although she is just a teen, Nao seems very aware of the passage of time and meditates on the brevity of her existence on earth: “Actually, it doesn’t matter very much, because by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth, wondering if you should keep on reading.”
The character of Nao allows Ozeki to introduce Japanese manga and anime culture into her story, making it more lively and accurate. For Nao, the characters in manga are her friends who help her discover her very own superpower. Nao needs to find an inner strength, and time with her great-grandmother also helps the girl become confident and strong.
It would have been fairly easy for Ozeki to write a book based solely on Nao’s narrative, yet Ozeki changes her tone and style to present a kind of detective story. No one is better at detective work than a novelist accustomed to research. So Ozeki brings in an author named Ruth.
Curiously, Ozeki puts herself in her own fictional work. Like Ozeki, Ruth lives on a remote island off British Columbia. Ruth is also a novelist who suffers from writer’s block (Ozeki’s last novel, All Over Creation, was published in 2003, so perhaps this is also true). Like Ozeki, Ruth is married to a man named Oliver and her mother has recently passed away. Ozeki is part Japanese and so is Ruth.
I do not recall ever having read a story in which the author becomes such a central figure in his or her own story. It is a weighty technique, leading the reader to wonder how autobiographical the work is or if it is simply fiction with a revealing twist. Whatever the case may be, the line between fiction and reality is not clear-cut in this novel, which makes it all the more enthralling and appealing.
While walking along the beach one day, Ruth finds a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Inside the lunchbox are a number of items: a series of Japanese letters, a red book containing a famous Marcel Proust piece, and a watch. However, the pages written by the French novelist, critic, and essayist have been removed and the book now contains the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao. The teen’s diary captivates and even obsesses Ruth; she begins a dogged pursuit to find out what happened to Nao.
The deeper Ruth gets into her research and into her quest to locate Nao, the more Ruth is certain that, through the humble act of reading Nao’s diary, she can save the troubled teen. Ozeki goes a step further, though. She makes the reader feel like he or she can effect this tale by reading the story. The reader really becomes Ruth, transfixed and possessed by Nao’s account. The fate of the Japanese teen matters deeply not only to Ruth but also to us.
Ozeki expresses our universal desire to connect with others through words and stories. Ozeki’s characters speak to us across time and across continents and beckon us to follow them to unknown worlds. Equal parts sobering and inspiring, A Tale for the Time Being is wholly inventive from the first page to the last. Not since Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has a novel so deeply moved me. Profoundly touching and amazingly good, A Tale for the Time Being is destined to become a modern classic.