5.18.2013

Review: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Viking Adult
432 pp  |  March 12, 2013
In Ruth Ozeki's newest novel, a Hello Kitty lunchbox swaddled in a freezer bag washes ashore on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver. The diary found inside is written in purple ink, bound in what was once (symbolically) Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and is accompanied by a handful of other souvenirs, not the least interesting of which is a watch that once belonged to a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot.

Believing that the bundle may be early flotsam from the devastating tsunami that recently hit Japan, Ruth and Oliver (self-insertions of the author and her husband) begin examining and reading the contents, trying to discover who the owner is and what may have happened to her. On many levels, Ozeki's novel plays with the reader's preconceptions of time and authorship. The style of self-insertion is a tricky one, forcing the reader to seriously reconsider and question the boundaries between fact and fiction, and between past, present and future.

A Tale for the Time Being is a puzzle, built on two alternating narratives that seem almost parallel, though we know fairly early on that they are in fact separated by approximately ten years. But as the young diarist's 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun great-grandmother Jiko would say: then, now, they're the same.

The struggles of the two women presented are, on the surface, staggeringly different. Ruth is struggling, and has been for some time, with trying to write her next novel - an account of dealing with her late mother's Alzheimer's disease. Nao, our young diarist and purple-ink-toting would-be-francophile, has been struggling with a severe bullying problem at school, her father's affinity for attempting suicide, and her own recent decision to (sometime, in the near future) commit suicide herself. Their problems could not be any more different, and yet Ruth finds herself relying on Nao's narrative.

But just as Ruth believes she is close to finding all of her answers through Nao, the narrative stops. In a passage that could be straight out of what my roommate calls the "infinite parallel meta universe" that is Stephen King's Dark Tower series*, the words simply vanish from the page, and Ruth finds herself contemplating her existence, perhaps as only a character in Nao's narrative. The words have disappeared from the page, and the story is unfinished until Ruth can find a way to affect the past in the present.

Zen Buddhist philosophy serves as a kind of backbone for the novel (Ozeki herself is a Zen priest) but, having gone into it myself knowing almost nothing about that school of thought, you don't need to be enlightened first; Ozeki's footnotes on just about everything will take care of all of that without being preachy. Each lesson is a foothold for Ruth, and for Ozeki's readers.

We're meant to understand that time is not the end, it is the means. Time is not the cage in which we live, it is the freedom by which we live. And, without spoiling it for you, it's once Ruth accepts that lesson that the pieces finally fall into place and the words re-inscribe themselves upon the page.


*In King's Dark Tower series, Stephen King is himself a character within the narrative. The various characters visit him when it is discovered that he is writing their lives. This is also somewhat similar to the existence of all the enchanted forest characters being in Henry's book prior to the curse being broken on ABC's Once Upon a Time.

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