A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


Together, we’re making magic, at least for the time being

Ruth Ozeki’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted title has been a favorite among BookerMarks members this year.  With such a richly layered and intricate plot, it’s difficult not to get sucked into this novel of hope, friendship, and family in the modern world.  Split between two narrators, A Tale for the Time Being introduces readers to Nao, a teenage girl living in Tokyo, and Ruth, a writer living on the Pacific coast of Canada.  Even though the two have never met, their lives are inextricably connected when Ruth finds Nao’s diary on the ocean shore, carefully wrapped and sealed within a freezer bag.  As Ruth reads Nao’s story, she develops a deep kinship and sense of concern for this Japanese girl.

As Nao explains in her diary, she often feels much more American than Japanese because she spent the majority of her life living in California.  Due to economic reasons, Nao’s family had to move back to Japan where her brilliant father sunk into a deep and suicidal depression, her mother is preoccupied by her new career responsibilities, and Nao herself is tortured daily by school bullies.

But when Nao goes to stay with her 104-year-old great grandmother (referred to as Old Jiko), her knowledge and understanding of world is forever changed.  Old Jiko is a nun who lives in isolation at the top of a misty mountain.  While she has more knowledge and wisdom than anyone Nao knows, Jiko is still tortured by the painful memories of her son’s death.  Haruki was a WWII kamikaze pilot who died in the 1940s, but to Nao’s family, his legacy is still very much alive.  Told through the filter of Nao’s memory and understanding, we slowly piece together her family’s story as well as Nao’s own personal story.

Back in Canada, Ruth is concerned for Nao’s mental health and well-being.  Much like her father, Nao exhibits many symptoms of being suicidal, and Ruth is desperate to find the end of Nao’s story.  But the more involved she gets, the more perplexing the situation gets, and Nao’s life and story begin to feel more elusive than ever.  Weaving together aspects of magical realism, fantasy, historical fiction, and memoir, A Tale for the Time Being is truly a unique and magnetic piece of literature.

As we mentioned in our podcast discussion of this novel, Ozeki focuses on both the vastness and smallness of existence with this novel.  Our global environment is connected every day through politics, the internet, and natural disasters, yet through various connections and anomalies, we can often find a great niche of intimacy in a place that otherwise feels vast and out of our control.  Somehow, the world often feels both lonely and overcrowded, and it’s challenging for our minds to accept the complexities of such an existence.  But through the art of storytelling, Ozeki shows how we can shrink this gap by embracing wonder and the unknown.

With a pulsing rhythm and sense of quiet urgency, A Tale for the Time Being is a sparkling example of storytelling and a well-crafted exploration of relationships, family, belonging, and the flexibility of fates.  And despite the staccato, vignette-style of Ozeki’s writing, the novel always feels fluid and rhythmic.  The deeper you dig the more thematic wonders you will discover, and this is likely the reason it has captured the attention of the Man Booker judges this year.  A novel that so successfully weaves multiple layers of story, plot, history, and interpretation into less than 500 pages is certainly worthy of a Man Booker nod.  And keep in mind, the 2013 MBP winner will be announced in only 4 days (Tuesday, October 15), and A Tale for the Time Being has proven to be a very strong contender.

:: Karli

Ruth Ozeki’s third novel A Tale for the Time Being, is a meta-fictional work that features an alternate version of the author as one of the story’s two main protagonists.  When Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on the beach near her home it sets her off on the path of an amazing adventure.  Inside the box are several items, the most revelatory of which is the diary of a suicidal sixteen-year-old Japanese girl named Nao.   Desperate to unlock the truth and determine what became of the girl, Ruth begins reading.

The novel starts out with this rather straight-forward idea, but somewhere along the way it begins to transform into a fascinating piece about writer’s block and the constant push and pull relationship that exists between an author and their readership.  Oh, and it also features a surprising amount of dog balls and cat ass.  We’ve sprinkled some quotes throughout this review for your … enjoyment?  Look, there’s one now.

He gave me a quick sideways glance then turned his back and started doing that thing that cats do, winding himself through my legs, arching his spine and sticking his tail straight up in the air while extending his front paws, not toward me but away from me, offering me his butt to scratch as well as a nice view of his puckered asshole and his giant furry white balls.

It’s unclear why Ozeki is so fixated on the private parts of our beloved pets, but what is crystal clear is her take on that aforementioned relationship between the author and the reader.  The fictional Ruth finds a young girl’s diary that was written years ago and just now washed up on shore.  She is the reader.  Yet at the same time we’re reading about the fictional Ozeki reading the diary years after the real Ozeki finished writing the novel that we’re physically holding in our hands.  We’re the reader as well.  What about the author?  First, let’s partake in more animal goodness.

The tiny cat with the giant balls flicked his tail and led us up the walkway, and just then I heard the sound of sandals slapping against stone, and Muji came running out to meet us.

Nao is the author of the diary in question and the fictional Ruth is the author of the pieces explaining her reading of the diary, but both voices were clearly authored by the real life Ruth Ozeki.  Complements to the author because although that seems like a fairly obvious statement to make, the richness of the diary and the vividness of the fictional Ruth as a character serve to blur the lines of reality so much that the suspension of belief doesn’t even come into question.  Her characters shine with a genuineness that’s rarely found in today’s literature.  However, there are dog balls to contend with.

He knows I’m here but he doesn’t look at me. A dirty white dog is licking its balls across the street. An old farmer woman with a blue-and-white tenugui on her head is bicycling by. Nobody sees me.  Maybe I’m invisible.

Ozeki clearly wants to challenge the reader.  How many times have you found yourself talking about a book with someone and saying “Oh, that was a great book, but that ending let a lot to be desired.”  Ozeki wants to open your eyes to the possibility of multiple endings.  Scratch that.  Make that limitless possibilities instead.  Infinite starting, middle, and ending points, all forever changing based on the minutest alterations along the way.  Oh, and in case you ever lose your place in this fascinating discussion…

So now where were we? Oh, right. I was sitting on the bench at the bus stop, waiting for the bus to take me to the temple so I could watch my old Jiko die, and there was an old guy in a jogging suit sweeping up the petals from the sidewalk, and a dirty white dog licking its balls, and the stationmaster was opening the doors to the station.

And so we have this push and pull, this ebb and flow if you will, that is represented by the ocean and the tsunami that devastated Japan and most likely led to the diary washing up on the beach near the fictional Ruth’s house in the first place.  We have a young suicidal girl.  Through her writing we learn about her horrible family life and her ancient, yet fascinating grandmother.  We learn of the fictional Ruth, an author living on a remote island with her auto-didactic husband.  A couple who strangely enough own a cat…

Could Pesto be his own observer? Interesting question. He used to like to raise his leg and study his asshole. It didn’t seem like this observation caused him to split into multiple cats with multiple assholes.

Try as you might A Tale for the Time Being defies definition.  For some it will be a touching, straight-forward tale of friendship between two women who bond with one another without ever meeting.  For others it will be a metaphysical journey with deeply spiritual implications on par with television’s Lost (if you know the show, think about the compass.  This novel has a compass moment!).  Also, like Lost it features fruit, guess what type of fruit?

“They’re much maligned,” he said. “In Elizabethan times, the English used to call them open-arse fruit. The French called them cul de chien, or dog’s asshole. Shakespeare used them as a metaphor for prostitution and anal intercourse.  Where’s your copy of Romeo and Juliet?”

Regardless of what you choose to focus in on or what aspects of the story most appeal to you, there’s no denying that Ozeki has crafted a thought-provoking, deeply affecting novel.  One that’s just as rich in descriptions of animal privates as it is in story.

:: Aaron

A_Tale_For_The_Time_Being ★★★★☆
A Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
432 Pages
ISBN 9780670026630

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jackie-Hirst/527147348 Jackie Hirst

    Great review!