A Tale for the Time Being is Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, after My Year of Meats and All Over Creation. It was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction.
The main character is also named Ruth Ozeki and her life bears a lot of resemblance to that of the author. Ruth, the character, lives on a small island off the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada, where she finds a plastic bag containing a diary of a Japanese teenage girl washed up on the beach. The novel alternates between a narrative of Ruth’s life, as she reads the diary and tries to find out what happened to the girl, and the first person narrative of the diary itself.
Within this framework Ozeki plays some games with time. The diary is written in a notebook that had been has been made by replacing the pages of Proust’s book “In Search For Lost Time” with blank pages. In a Guardian newspaper interview, Ozeki said “I think that all writing is in search of lost time.”
The girl calls herself a “time being”. In fact, the girl’s name is Nao—pronounced “now”. The girl is addressing the diary to a reader—putting them in the same time zone—the present. But, what Ruth is reading is history and for the girl, her reader is someone in the future. The girl may not even be alive—did she die in the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami? Did the girl kill herself, as she indicates she may do in certain passages?
Nao’s story is quite harsh. She is the victim of brutal bullying from other students. Teachers seem to be complicit and her parents oblivious. Nao moves away from school and home into a world of Japanese culture that seems quite bizarre—from cafes where the waitresses are dressd as French maids ready and willing to indulge their customers fantasies and fetishes to the life of Nao’s great-grandmother who lives in relative isolation as a buddhist nun and in which Nao encounters the supernatural.
Ozeki’s characters are dealing with displacement and disconnection. Ruth, the character, like Ozeki, has moved from New York to British Columbia to be with her husband, but after years there, she still doesn’t feel at home. She and her husband are not always able to communicate well. Nao has spent much of her childhood in northern California and has only recently returned to her country of birth. She was never fully American and now is being taunted as an outsider within Japan.
The novel explores suicide—through Nao’s father, who tries unsuccessfully to kill himself, through Nao who contemplates it, and through Nao’s great-uncle who was a kamikaze pilot in World War II. There are also explorations into technology—as we see how the internet affects both Nao’s story and Ruth’s investigation into what happened to Nao. We learn about enviromental issues, quantum physics and garbage floating on the oceans gyres. In a Bookslut blog interview, Ozeki has said “the whole idea of a time being is a being that has a limited amount of time . . . So this negotiation around how much time we have . . . and the way we live our lives as a result of the way we think about it — these are very important things in the book. And so it does make sense to me that there are so many characters contemplating the end of their life in one way or another.”
At the end of the book, Ruth is having trouble finding traces of Nao and her family on the internet. Also, she has seen items on the internet that seem to have disappeared. It turns out that someone in the book may removing specific personal histories from the internet—particularly useful when the history is embarrassing or the includes the result of humiliating pranks of bullies. I thought of this part of the book when reading about the EU’s recent ruling that people can have links removed from Google.
There was some lovely writing and some interesting juxtapositions and expositions in “A Tale for the Time Being.” But the themes were sometimes too disparate. At times, particularly when the story verged on the surreal, I had to struggle to make it to the end.