Review of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being
Reading A Tale for the Time Being, the third novel by New Haven-born author Ruth Ozeki, played with my head in a way I’ve not experienced since John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Whereas Fowles' novel dealt with existentialist philosophy, Ozeki's strange blend of fiction and “not fiction” ponders Buddhist thinking intertwined with quantum theory. It can make for a bewildering read.
Ozeki's novel is written in the first-person perspective of a troubled teenaged Japanese girl and in the third-person perspective of an almost equally troubled author who finds the girl's diary washed up on shore. In penning her thoughts, the Japanese girl, Nao (short for Naoko, and playing on its sounding like “now”), contemplates suicide and intends to make a written record of Jiko, her 104-year-old great-grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun with awesome “supapawa.” The author, named Ruth, struggles to find the confidence to write her next book (believing her powers are fading like her mother's mind did) and with the lifestyle she shares with her husband, Oliver.
I struggled too. In the first few chapters I found Nao a little unbelievable. She was too upbeat, too interesting to be convincing as a girl intending to kill herself. At the same time, the characterization was wonderful—I really liked her and cared about her well-being. Ozeki constructs Nao's diary as an account written to some undefined, future “you” which draws in the reader just as it draws in Ruth. The novel interweaves chapters between the two characters throughout, taking the reader on a journey with both women. Nao says she is writing for “one special person, and that person is you.” And that person may be Ruth.
Just as in Einsteinian physics, space and time are linked, inseparable, and to some extent the same thing, so Nao seems to reach across time and space to that special “you.” She puns with time, referring to herself as a “time being,” and asks questions of the “you,” wondering how “it feels like I'm reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you've found it, you're reaching back to touch me!” The diary itself is cleverly hidden in time—secreted between the covers of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Living in New Haven, an ocean away from Japan, Ruth is yet of Japanese descent herself and so the two characters are connected despite such vast distance. Ultimately, Ruth's dreams make even that distance seemingly non-existent.
Ozeki explores the themes of opposites and equalities throughout. First, through Nao, she introduces Jiko's maddening philosophy: “up down, same thing. And also different, too.” Similarly, she blurs fiction and non-fiction. It’s obvious that the characters of Ruth and Oliver are meant to be understood as Ozeki and her husband, Oliver Kellhammer, making it all the more ironic when Nao (a fictional character) begins to doubt Ruth's existence: “But the fact is, you're a lie. You're just another stupid story I made up out of thin air because I was lonely and needed someone to spill my guts to.”
And what of all the people Ruth and Oliver meet on the way? Do they exist? And how real is real? How much of Ruth and Oliver are Ozeki and Kellhammer? Do the couple really own a cat called Schrödinger, for instance? Just as Ruth googles the names and places Nao writes of to see if they are factual, so I quickly found myself doing the same not just for Nao's story but also Ruth's. Nao, in fact, became so real to me, I became not a little jealous of Oliver getting to read Nao's story. He wasn't the right “you,” I felt. His interjections in the appendix (helpfully explaining the numerous Japanese terms used throughout the book) seemed like an intruder breaking in where he had no place. I felt Ruth was betraying Nao by letting Oliver read what was meant for her alone. But, of course, I was reading Nao too. Oliver had as much right as I or anyone, so why did I become jealous?
Later, Ruth seems to struggle with the same feelings herself (which came as a shock), hiding the book from others and resenting Oliver's involvement. Indeed, Ruth’s situation also reaches across space and time, sucking the reader into her world. Often I felt she was describing the reader’s world as much as her own, admitting “she was finding it harder and harder to pick up the phone these days. She didn't like talking to people in real time anymore.” These words resonate with dedicated writers and readers, people who let “real time” fade away.
The contradiction of opposites becomes a central point, as Ozeki's characters find for themselves. Up/down, reality/not reality, being/not being—even reader/writer—“all the same.” But also different too. Most of the time, Ozeki makes this metaphysical equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat entertaining as well as thought-provoking and, towards the end, I finally began to understand why Nao didn't come across as a suicidally depressed teenager. The truth—and not truth—is more complex than that.
For all its interest, Ozeki doesn't quite manage a flawless novel. There are times when the plot is a little too obviously contrived for the sake of her didacticism. In Part IV, the book gets bogged down in philosophy and theory, losing its way a little too. Nevertheless, A Tale for the Time Being gets close to perfection. Its great success is in making its plot—will Nao kill herself in the end?— almost unimportant. The journey entices us rather than the destination.
And it is a challenging journey. There's something about Ozeki's writing which makes you question your own “time being”: Who are you? Why are you? Reading Nao's voice makes it impossible not to engage in introspection. Indeed, even in writing this review, I can’t escape a personal inflection. You're a stranger to me and I to you. Yet here I am confessing a little of my own thoughts and feelings, all because of Nao and Ruth and Oliver and all the others who appear in this story. And you are reading this to decide whether you should pick up Ozeki’s book and, thus, Nao’s diary. There is something quite fitting about this: like Nao, I’m writing this review just for you, in hopes you will read both. And that makes you kind of special.
A Tale for the Time Being
Canongate, 2013; 400 pages