“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.”
Do you know what a time being is? I’ll give you a hint; you’re one, and I am one, and Naoko Yasutani, the protagonist of A Tale for the Time Being is one. So is Ruth, the failed memoirist who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of British Columbia sometime after the tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima nuclear reactor. And so is the real Ruth Ozeki, the author of this interwoven tale. After Nao’s father loses his job in Silicon Valley during the dot-com bust, their family moves back to Japan, where both Nao and her father find themselves depressed and suicidal. Nao has decided that she is going to “drop out of time” just as she has dropped out of school, but first she is determined to share the life story of her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who was once a novelist and a political radical. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the Yasutani family, but they seem to have left no trace behind.
With A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki pushes the boundaries of the novel, and actively interrogates the relationship between the author and the reader. The reader slips into the shoes of Ruth, who fills the role of both author and reader herself. By annotating Nao’s diary, the author both interprets Japanese culture, and also subtly reminds the reader of her presence, both as character and as writer. Interjecting Ruth’s perspective also forces us to read Nao’s story more slowly, which admittedly does not jibe with Ruth’s burning curiosity to find out what happened to Nao, but does give the narrative a pleasing rhythm, and a healthy dose of suspense.
Just as the novel explores the overlapping roles of author and reader, A Tale for the Time Being occupies a space that is both Japanese and American, and yet neither, a situation that is familiar to both Nao, and Ozeki. Nao’s American upbringing leaves her feeling like an alien in Japan, while Ozeki has related being bullied for being Asian in America, causing her to identify with her Japanese heritage, only to later go to Japan and discover how American she truly was. A Tale for the Time Being emerges from this liminal space, and explores these complicated identities.
The novel also emphasizes the interconnected nature of all things, people to one another, and to the environment. Ozeki uses both quantum mechanics (simply explained) and Zen Buddhist concepts (deceptively simple) to draw these connections. Where science and Buddhism blend together, Ozeki infuses her own particular flavour of magic realism, which manifests in strange coincidences, vivid dreams, and recurring natural imagery. This is also the aspect of the novel that is most likely to be divisive. If you can try to accept the connections Ozeki draws between seemingly disparate things, A Tale for the Time Being comes together beautifully. But if you feel it is asking you to stretch too far, it can seem a muddle of intriguing but disconnected elements.
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