I get book recommendations from lots of places, many from all of you and many from friends who are bookworms like I am, but Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being came to me via a new route – call it Strangers on a Plane. I was on a flight at some point last year, I think heading to the AFL in October, and the guy sitting next to me was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. I mentioned that it was among my favorite novels, and asked if he’d read any Murakami, which he had, spurring a brief and very rapid-fire chat about modern Japanese (including Japanese expats) literature. He mentioned Ozeki’s novel, which I’d never heard of, recommending it very highly given what else I said I liked. It’s not quite like Murakami or Ishiguro – both of whom are idiosyncratic enough to make it hard for anyone to be “like” either of them – but Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest who lives in British Columbia, has a similar knack with magical realism as Murakami does: A little bit goes a very long way.
A Tale for the Time Being is two stories woven into one, a duality even reflected in the book’s title, as a “time being” is a Buddhist concept (uji) developed by the writer D?gen Zenji, who believed that all time is being and all beings are therefore time. (Whether time is a flat circle he did not say.) Time is a flow, comparable to a river, and all beings exist within time, even though our lives here are momentary. The protagonist of the first story, named Nao (pronounced “now,” another allusion to time and temporality), narrates her own story through entries in a diary she intends to leave for someone else to find at random, a story she refers to as “for the time-being.” Her diary does indeed make its way to someone, a woman on a remote island in British Columbia named Ruth, who lives with her husband Oliver and their idiot cat Pesto. The diary washes up after the 2012 earthquake and tsunami, spurring speculation among the 50 or so residents of the island, but discusses events from over a decade earlier, including Nao’s father’s repeated attempts at suicide and her own intention to do the same when she finishes the diary.
And then it gets really weird: Although the two stories are separated by time and geography, they begin to bleed into each other in ways that don’t quite add up, eventually culminating in the disappearance of text from the last few pages of the diary – a lack of resolution in Nao’s story that Ruth herself has to fix. Saying more would spoil the book’s denuouement, but Ozeki employs this one instance of magical realism (everything else is hyperrealistic, but not actually impossible) to tie her main story and the quasi-metafictional diary story together.
That connection itself lends itself to many interpretations. There’s a crow who keeps appearing on Ruth’s island who may be spiritually connected to Nao or her family. Ozeki alludes to several quantum concepts, including Schrodinger’s cat paradox and the many-worlds interpretation of the effect observation has on quantum phenomena, and may even be teasing the concept of the ‘quantum soul,’ itself an odd marriage of hard physics and the metaphysical. While there’s nothing as cataclysmic as Ray Bradbury’s “The Butterfly Effect,” I found the similarity between the classical statement of this effect – a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa leads to a hurricane in the Americas – and Nao’s struggles to find her own wings eventually affecting Ruth across another vast ocean to be improbably coincidental.
Magical realism and the specific ribbon Ozeki uses to interlace her two narratives aren’t the source of the book’s narrative greed, however, nor is it her fictional version of herself, especially since Ruth’s conversations with Oliver veer into pretentiousness too often. It’s Nao herself, precocious rather than pretentious, a bright teenager who is at-risk due to a disastrous home life, a suicidal father who’s lost his career and self-respect, a mother largely turning a blind eye to her husband’s abdication of his duties, and schoolmates who scorn, taunt, bully, and physically abuse her. She’s a fragile teenager who doesn’t want to show a fragile side, and who’s asked to be stronger and more mature than any teenager should have to be. Her story is the compelling one, and Ruth’s story is more about her own connection to what she reads in Nao’s diary and her attempts to unlock some of the riddles Nao herself couldn’t solve than it is about Ruth herself.
The resolution relies on the collapsing of space and time into a temporary singularity, a metaphorical bridge Ruth can cross to get to Nao’s story and provide her with the resolution she can’t give herself. It’s sweet without becoming maudlin, although it abandons the largely realistic tone of the preceding 300-odd pages. Along the way, Ozeki gives brief introductions to basic concepts of Zen Buddhism, notably zazen, the type of seated meditation that is at the heart of the practice (and may have real physical health benefits as well), but to her credit it never overwhelms either of the core stories. She even has the brief stomach-churning passage of the violence of Japanese soldiers during World War II that marked Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you like that novel or Murakami’s work in general, take my seatmate’s advice and pick this book up too.
Next up: I’m bouncing around in my reviews, but I’m currently reading Wizard of the Crow, the 766-page opus from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, one of the greatest post-colonial writers to come out of Africa, less well-known than Chinua Achebe but writing with greater depth and a biting satirical slant. It’s set in a corrupt African dictatorship, where allegiances change with the wind and a new power emerges in the form of an inadvertent charlatan calling himself the Wizard of the Crow.