A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki Published by Text, $32.99
Ruth Ozeki has always been a writer with a conscience. (It’s no accident that apart from being a novelist, she’s also a Buddhist priest.) In her first novel, My Year of Meats, she drew attention to the noxious additives and hormones used in raising livestock and meat processing; like Barbara Kingsolver and others, political agenda is deeply rooted in her fiction. Her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, blends fantasy and history with Ozeki’s concerns about pollution and the environment. And for good measure, there’s a big dose of quantum physics, Japanese pop culture and Zen Buddhism thrown in.
Confused? Go with the flow. This is a fairy tale for our time. Time being the operative word. But I’ll get to that. This review, rather like the novel itself, may meander. And what is time anyway? A series of collapsible portholes through which to view the present and the past. (Ozeki’s obviously got to me, I’m going all Zen.)
On a remote island on the Pacific coast of Canada, Ruth, a novelist, lives with her husband Oliver. A keen beachcomber, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up onshore. Inside, there’s a diary written in Japanese. Luckily Ruth, who is half-Japanese herself, can read it. She discovers it belongs to a 16 year-old schoolgirl called Nao (pronounced ‘now’). Bullied at school because she has spent much of her childhood in America and deeply miserable, Nao intends to kill herself, but before she does she wants to recount the life of her beloved grandmother, the 105-year old Buddhist nun and feminist, Jiko.
Ruth, who is herself trying to write a memoir of her mother, becomes fascinated with Nao. Did she perish in the tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake? If not, where is she? Ruth puts her own writing aside and embarks on a quest to find her. The novel interweaves Ruth’s Google searches and increasingly frantic emails to potential sources of information, with pages from Nao’s diary, which gradually reveal much about her family’s history. The reader finds out about Nao’s chronically depressed and suicidal father, and the uncle she never met, a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. Part detective novel, part meditative Zen koān, the novel unfolds like a series of Chinese boxes, each theme opening up to the next.
Let’s look at “reality versus unreality” first. The protagonist of the novel is called “Ruth”, like Ozeki herself, and the real Ruth Ozeki, like her fictitious counterpart, is married to a man called Oliver. Yet the fictional Ruth is not Ruth Ozeki, novelist. They look very different, and though they share a common half-American, half Japanese heritage, they are clearly not the same person.
So why does Ozeki call her leading character Ruth? Is it to draw attention to the novelist’s craft of fabrication and make-believe? Nao and her diary are clearly not “real” in a tangible sense, although they feel real in the time-zone of reading and the close bond forged between reader and writer through the pages of a novel. Yet Ozeki constantly pokes holes at this relationship by including copious footnotes painstakingly explaining references to Japanese culture, Buddhist practise and history – each time a footnote is looked up, suspension of disbelief is thwarted and the reader is jolted back to the present, becoming conscious that the work is one of fiction.
Another theme is that of time. The novel covers several time frames, Nao’s recent past, Ruth’s present, and even further back in history to the days of the Second World War where Nao’s uncle was a “sky soldier”. The preamble to the book is taken from a Zen Buddhist text saying that any Tom, Dick or Harry is: For the time being, the entire earth and the boundless sky.
This echoes the Buddhist belief that both the inanimate and the animate are inextricably intertwined. But it also introduces the theme of humans as “beings in time”. Nao (Now, get it?), Oliver, Ruth and all the characters in the book are “time beings”, who exist in their personal time zones and also elsewhere in the novelist and reader’s imaginations. Here, quantum physics comes in, in relation to the fact that particles can also behave like waves and can never be pinned down in time or space – the moment you try to do so, they behave like something else.
Nao’s diary is also – coincidentally or not – wrapped up in a faux cover – that of Proust’s epic novel, Remembrance of Things Past. Elusive, but potentially full of clues, one moment revealing its full text and then mysteriously showing Ruth blank pages, it behaves like a quantum physics particle, in, out and of its time.
Within this complex structure, Ozeki introduces themes of pollution and environmental catastrophe, as seen by the tsunami itself, oddly migrating bird species, unusual flotsam and jetsam, and the intricacy of global wave cycles. It is also a critique of contemporary Japanese society, where the penalty for not being successful or fitting in with cultural norms has bred a generation of reclusives and a suicide rate among the under 25s that is three times higher than that of the USA. Yet within all this, Ruth herself seems little more than a catalyst for Nao’s overpowering story and cataclysmic life events. The more we get to know Nao, the less tangible Ruth seems, until she appears little more than a tangle of footnotes (163 to be exact), facts, emails and hypotheses.
It’s as if Ozeki were concentrating so hard on the novel’s many themes that she bypasses the narrative arc of one of her principle characters. If A Tale for the Time Being leaves the reader up in the air, it is because the fictitious Ruth seems much less “real” than the fictitious Nao. But in the dynamics of quantum physics, that might be precisely Ozeki’s point.
LISTEN TO MY INTERVIEW WITH RUTH OZEKI NEXT WEEK ON MY PAGETURNERS PODCAST: I’LL POST A LINK ON BOOKS NOW!