Storytelling in the twenty-first century is a tricky business. People are faced with too many real-world concerns to be genuinely open to the possibility of caring what happens to imaginary characters in a made-up universe. Some of us even feel a certain level of dread as we read reviews or lists of the best books of any given year, loath to add yet another modern classic to the towering mental stack we resolve to read. Yet we’re hardly ever as grateful to anyone as we are to an author or filmmaker who seduces us with a really good story. No sooner have we closed a novel whose characters captured our heart and whose plights succeeded in making us forget our own daily anxieties, however briefly, than we feel compelled to proselytize on behalf of that story to anyone whose politeness we can exploit long enough to deliver the message. The enchantment catches us so unawares, and strikes us as so difficult to account for according to any reckoning of daily utility, that it feels perfectly natural to relay our literary experiences in religious language. But, as long as we devote sufficient attention to an expertly wrought, authentically heartfelt narrative, even those of us with the most robust commitment to the secular will find ourselves succumbing to the magic.
The pages of Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being are brimful with the joys and heartache, not just of fiction in general, but of literary fiction in particular, with the bite of reality that sinks deeper than that of the commercial variety, which sacrifices lasting impact for immediate thrills—this despite the Gothic and science fiction elements Ozeki judiciously sprinkles throughout her chapters. The story is about a woman who becomes obsessed with a story despite herself because she can’t help worrying about the fate of the teenage girl who wrote it. This woman, a novelist who curiously bears the same first name as the novel’s author, only reluctantly brings a barnacle-covered freezer bag concealing a Hello Kitty lunchbox to her home after discovering it washed up on a beach off the coast of British Columbia. And it’s her husband Oliver—named after Ozeki’s real-life husband—who brings the bag into the kitchen so he can examine the contents, over her protests. Inside the lunchbox, Oliver finds a stack of letters written in Japanese and dating to the Second World War. With them, there is a diary written in French, and what at first appears to be a copy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time but turns out to be another diary, with pages in the handwritten English of a teenage Japanese girl named Nao, pronounced much like the word “now.”
Ruth begins reading the diary, sometimes by herself, sometimes to Oliver before they go to bed. Nao addresses her reader very personally, and delights in the idea that she may be sharing her story with a single individual. As she poses one question after another to this lone reader—who we know has turned out to be Ruth—Nao’s loneliness, her desperate need to unburden herself, wraps itself around Ruth and readers of Ozeki’s novel alike. In the early passages, we learn that Nao’s original plan for the pages under Proust’s cover was to write a biography of her 104-year-old great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun living in a temple in the Miyagi Prefecture, just north of the Fukishima nuclear power plant, and then toss it into the waves of the Pacific for a single beachcomber to find. Contemplating the significance of her personal gesture toward some anonymous future reader, she writes,
If you ask me, it’s fantastically cool and beautiful. It’s like a message in a bottle, cast out onto the ocean of time and space. Totally personal, and real, too, right out of old Jiko’s and Marcel’s prewired world. It’s the opposite of a blog. It’s an antiblog, because it’s meant for only one special person, and that person is you. And if you’ve read this far, you probably understand what I mean. Do you understand? Do you feel special yet? (26)
Nao does manage to write a lot about her own experiences with her great grandmother, and we learn a bit about Jiko’s life before Nao was born. But for the most part Nao’s present troubles override her intentions to write about someone else’s life. Meanwhile, the character Ruth is trying to write a memoir about nursing her mother, who has recently died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, but she’s also getting distracted by Nao’s tribulations, even to the point of conducting a search for the girl based on whatever telling details she comes across in the diary.
All great stories pulse with resonances from great stories past, and A Tale for the Time Being, whether as a result of human commonalities, direct influence, or cultural osmosis, reverberates with the tones and themes of Catcher in the Rye, Donnie Darko, The Karate Kid, My Girl, and the first third of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The characters in Ozeki’s multiple embedded and individually shared narratives fascinate themselves with, even as they reluctantly succumb to, the mystery of communion between storyteller and audience. But, since the religion—or perhaps rather the philosophy—that suffuses the characters’ lives is not Christian but Buddhist, it’s only fitting that the focus is on how narrative time flows according to a type of eternal present, always waking us up to the present moment. The surprise in store for readers of the novel, though, is that narrative communion—the bond of compassion between narrators and audiences—is intricately tied to our experience of time. This connection comes through in the double meaning of the phrase “for the time being,” which conveys that whatever you’re discussing, though not ideal, is sufficient for now, until something more suitable comes along. But it can also refer to a being existing in time—hence to all beings. As Nao explains in the early pages of her diary,
A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid Café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too. (3)
Time is what connects every being—and, as Jiko insists, every object—that moves through it, moment by moment. Further, as Nao demonstrates, the act of narrating, in collusion with a separate act of attending, renders any separation in time somewhat moot.
Revealing that the contrapuntal narration of A Tale for the Time Being represents the flowering of a relationship between two women who never even meet, whose destinies, it is tantalizingly suggested, may not even be unfolding in the same universe, will likely do nothing to blunt the impact of the story, for the same reasons the characters continually find themselves contemplating. Ruth, once she’s fully engaged in Nao’s story, becomes frustrated at how hard it is “to get a sense from the diary of the texture of time passing.” She wants so much to understand what Nao was going through—what she is going through in the story—but, as she explains, “No writer, even the most proficient, could re-enact in words the flow of a life lived, and Nao was hardly that skillful” (64). We may chuckle at how Ozeki is covering her tracks with this line about her prodigiously articulate sixteen-year-old protagonist. But she’s also showing just how powerful Ruth’s urge is to keep up her end of the connection. This paradox of urgent inconsequence is introduced by Nao on the first page of her diary. After posing a series of questions about the reader, she writes,
Actually, it doesn’t matter very much, because by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth, wondering if you should keep on reading. (3)
In an attempt to mimic the flow of time as Nao experienced it, Ruth paces her reading of the diary to correspond with the spans between entries. All the while, though, she’s desperate to find out what happened—what happens—because she’s worried that Nao may have killed herself, or may still be on the verge of doing so.
Nao wrote her diary in English because she spent most of her life in Sunnyvale, California, where her father Haruki worked for a tech firm. After he lost his job for what Nao assumes are economic reasons, he moved with her and her mother back to Tokyo. Nao starts having difficulties at school right away, but she’s reluctant to transfer to what she calls a stupid kids’ school because, as she explains,
It’s probably been a while since you were in junior high school, but if you can remember the poor loser foreign kid who entered your eighth-grade class halfway through the year, then maybe you will feel some sympathy for me. I was totally clueless about how you’re supposed to act in a Japanese classroom, and my Japanese sucked, and at the time I was almost fifteen and older than the other kids and big for my age, too, from eating so much American food. Also, we were broke so I didn’t have an allowance or any nice stuff, so basically I got tortured. In Japan they call it ijime, but that word doesn’t begin to describe what the kids used to do to me. I would probably already be dead if Jiko hadn’t taught me how to develop my superpower. Ijime is why it’s not an option for me to go to a stupid kids’ school, because in my experience, stupid kids can be even meaner than smart kids because they don’t have as much to lose. School just isn’t safe. (44)
The types of cruelty Nao is subjected to are insanely creative, and one of her teachers even participates so he can curry favor with the popular students. They pretend she’s invisible and only detectable by a terrible odor she exudes—and she perversely begins to believe she really does give off a tell-tale scent of poverty. They pinch her and pull out strands of her hair. At one point, they even stage an elaborate funeral for her and post a video of it online. Curiously, though, when Ruth searches for the title, nothing comes up.
Unfortunately, the extent of Nao’s troubles stretches beyond the walls of the school. Her father, whom she and her mother believed to have been hired for a new job, tries to kill himself by lying down in front of a train. But the engineers see him in time to stop, and all he manages to do is incur a fine. Once Nao’s mother brings him home, he reveals the new job was a lie, that he’s been earning money gambling, and that now he’s lost nearly every penny. One of the few things Ruth finds in her internet searches is an essay by Nao’s father about why he and other Japanese men are attracted to the idea of suicide. She decides to email the professor who posted this essay, claiming that it’s “urgent” for her to find the author and his daughter. When Oliver reminds Ruth that all of this occurred some distance in the past, she’s dumbfounded. As the third-person narrator of the Ruth chapters explains,
It wasn't that she'd forgotten, exactly. The problem was more a kind of slippage. When she was writing a novel, living deep inside a fictional world, the days got jumbled together, and entire weeks or months or even years would yield to the ebb and flow of the dream. Bills went unpaid, emails unanswered, calls unreturned. Fiction had its own time and logic. That was its power. But the email she’d just written to the professor was not fiction. It was real, as real as the diary. (313-4)
Before ending up in that French maid café (the precise character of which is a bone of contention between Ruth and Oliver) trying to write Jiko’s life story, Nao had gone, at her parents’ prompting, to spend a summer with her great grandmother at the temple. And it’s here she learns to develop what Jiko calls her superpower. Of course, as she describes the lessons in her diary, Nao is also teaching to Ruth what Jiko taught to her. So Ozeki’s readers get the curious sense that not only is Ruth trying to care for Nao but Nao is caring for Ruth in return.
During her stay at the temple, Nao learns that Jiko became a nun after her son, Nao’s great uncle and her father’s namesake, died in World War II. It is the letters he wrote home as he underwent pilot training that Oliver and Ruth find with Nao’s diary, and they eventually learn that the other diary, the one written in French, is his as well. Even though Nao only learns about the man she comes to call Haruki #1 from her grandmother’s stories, along with the letters and a few ghostly visitations, she develops a type of bond with him, identifying with his struggles, admiring his courage. At the same time, she comes to sympathize with and admire Jiko all the more for how she overcame the grief of losing her son. “By the end of the summer, with Jiko’s help,” Nao writes,
I was getting stronger. Not Just strong in my body, but strong in my mind. In my mind, I was becoming a superhero, like Jubei-chan, the Samurai Girl, only I was Nattchan, the Super Nun, with abilities bestowed upon me by Lord Buddha that included battling the waves, even if I always lost, and being able to withstand astonishing amounts of pain and hardship. Jiko was helping me cultivate my supapawa! by encouraging me to sit zazen for many hours without moving, and showing me how not to kill anything, not even the mosquitoes that buzzed around my face when I was sitting in the hondo at dusk or lying in bed at night. I learned not to swat them even when they bit me and also not to scratch the itch that followed. At first, when I woke up, my face and arms were swollen from the bites, but little by little, my blood and skin grew tough and immune to their poison and I didn’t break out in bumps no matter how much I’d been bitten. And soon there was no difference between me and the mosquitoes. My skin was no longer a wall that separated us, and my blood was their blood. I was pretty proud of myself, so I went and found Jiko and I told her. She smiled. (204)
Nao is learning to break through the walls that separate her from others by focusing her mind on simply being, but the theme Ozeki keeps bringing us back to in her novel is that it’s not only through meditation that we open our minds compassionately to others.
Despite her new powers, though, Nao’s problems at home and at school only get worse when she returns from her sojourn at the temple. And, as the urgency of her story increases, a long-simmering tension between Ruth and Oliver boils over into spats and insults. The added strain stems not so much from their different responses to Nao’s story as it does from the way the narration resonates with many of Ruth’s own feelings and experiences, making her more aware of all that’s going on in her own mind. When Nao explains how she came to be writing in a blanked out copy of In Search of Lost Time, for instance, she describes how the woman who makes the diaries “does it so authentically you don’t even notice the hack, and you almost think that the letters just slipped off the pages and fell to the floor like a pile of dead ants” (20). Later, Ruth reflects on how,
When she was little, she was always surprised to pick up a book in the morning, and open it, and find the letters aligned neatly in their places. Somehow she expected them to be all jumbled up, having fallen to the bottom when the covers were shut. Nao had described something similar, seeing the blank pages of Proust and wondering if the letters had fallen off like dead ants. When Ruth had read this, she’d felt a jolt of recognition. (63)
The real source of the trouble, though, is Nao’s description of her father as a hikikomori, which Ruth defines in one of the footnotes that constantly remind readers of her presence in Nao’s story as a “recluse, a person who refuses to leave the house” (70). Having agreed to retreat to the sparsely populated Whaletown, on the tiny island of Cortes, to care for her mother and support Oliver as he undertook a series of eminently eccentric botanical projects, part art and part ecological experimentations—the latest of which he calls the “Neo-Eocene”—Ruth is now beginning to long for the bustling crowds and hectic conveniences of urban civilization: “Engulfed by the thorny roses and massing bamboo, she stared out the window and felt like she’d stepped into a malevolent fairy tale” (61).
A Tale for the Time Being is so achingly alive the characters’ thoughts and words lift up off the pages as if borne aloft on clouds of their own breath. Ironically, though, if there’s one character who suffers from overscripting it’s the fictional counterpart to Ozeki’s real-life husband. Oliver’s role is to see what Ruth cannot, moving the plot forward with strained scientific explanations of topics ranging from Pacific gyres, to Linnaean nomenclature, to quantum computing, raising the suspicion that he’s serving as the personification of the author’s own meticulous research habits. Under the guise of the masculine tendency to launch into spontaneous lectures—which to be fair Ozeki has at least one female character manifesting as well—Oliver at times transforms from a living character into a scholarly mouthpiece, performing a parody of professorial pedantism. For the most part, though, the philosophical ruminations in the novel emanate so naturally from the characters and are woven so seamlessly into the narrative that you can’t help following along with the characters' thoughts, as if taking part in a conversation. When Nao writes about discovering through a Google search that “A la recherché du temps perdu” means “In search of lost time,” she encourages her reader to contemplate what that means along with her:
Weird, right? I mean, there I was, sitting in a French maid café in Akiba, thinking about lost time, and old Marcel Proust was sitting in France a hundred years ago, writing a whole book about the exact same subject. So maybe his ghost was lingering between the covers and hacking into my mind, or maybe it was just a crazy coincidence, but either way, how cool is that? I think coincidences are cool, even if they don’t mean anything, and who knows? Maybe they do! I’m not saying everything happens for a reason. It was more just that it felt as if me and old Marcel were on the same wavelength. (23)
Waves and ghosts and crazy coincidences make up some of the central themes of the novel, but underlying them all is the spooky connectedness we humans so readily feel with one another, even against the backdrop of our capacity for the most savage cruelty.
A Tale for the Time Being balances its experimental devices with time-honored storytelling techniques. It’s central conceits are emblematic of today’s reigning fictional aesthetic, which embodies a playful exploration of the infinite possibilities of all things meta—stories about stories, narratives pondering the nature of narrative, authors becoming characters, characters becoming authors, fiction that’s indistinguishable from nonfiction and vice versa. We might call this tradition jootsism, after computational neuroscientist Douglas Hofstadter’s term jootsing, or jumping out of the system, which he theorizes is critical to the emergence of consciousness from physical substrates, whether biochemical or digital. Some works in this tradition fatally undermine the systems they jump out of, revealing that the story readers are emotionally invested in is a hoax. Indeed, one strain of literary theory that’s been highly influential over the past four decades equates taking pleasure from stories with indulging in the reaffirmation of prejudices against minorities. Authors in this school therefore endeavor to cast readers out of their own narratives as punishment for their complicity in societal oppression. Fortunately, the types of gimmickry common to this brand of postmodernism—deliberately obnoxious and opaquely nonsensical neon-lit syntactical acrobatics—appear to have drastically declined in popularity, though the urge toward guilt-tripping readers and the obsession with the most harebrained and pusillanimous forms of identity politics persist. There are hidden messages in all media, we’re taught to believe, and those messages are the lifeblood of all that’s evil in our civilization.
But even those of us who don’t subscribe to the ideology that sees all narratives as sinister political allegories are still looking to be challenged, and perhaps even enlightened, every time we pick up a new book. If there is a set of conventions realist literary fiction is trying to break itself free of, it’s got to be the standard lineup of what masquerade as epiphanies but are really little more than varieties of passive acceptance or world-weary acquiescence in the face of life’s inexorables: disappointment, death, the delimiting of opportunity, the dimming of beauty, the diminishing of faculties, the desperate need for love, the absence of any ideal candidate for love. The postmodern wing of the avant-garde offers nothing in place of these old standbys but meaningless antics and sadomasochistic withholdings of the natural pleasure humans derive from sharing stories. While the theme that emerges from all the jootsing in A Tale for the Time Being, a theme that paradoxically produces its own proof, is that the pleasure we get from stories comes from a kind of magic—the superpower of the storyteller, with the generous complicity of the reader—and that this is the same magic that forms the bonds between us and our loved ones. In a world where teenagers subject each other to unspeakable cruelty, where battling nations grind bodies by the boatload into lifeless, nameless mush, there is still solace to be had, and hope, in the daily miracle of how easily we’re made to feel the profoundest sympathy for people we never even meet, simply by experiencing their stories.
And: Muddling through "Life after Life": a Reflection on Plot and Character in Kate Atkinson's New Novel