Like The Sympathizer by Viet Than Nguyen (which was my previous read), Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being was a book that I saw make the rounds online before I finally picked it up — the cover is absolutely stunning, so I can’t blame anyone on Instagram for showcasing it. I finished The Sympathizer sooner than I had anticipated, so I was in the market for something to read and decided to grab Ozeki’s book at a local used bookstore. I mentioned this before, but I am trying to be more mindful about balancing out reading what I already own with any new book purchases, so I did think pretty hard about what book to pick up. Although I had seen this book around, I’ll admit that I had essentially no idea what the book was about and wasn’t quite sure if it would turn out to be something I would enjoy. Oh, how wrong I was. I am so glad I ended up buying this book because it was absolutely stunning and turned out to be exactly the type of book I had been in the mood for, while still lingering with me days after I finished it.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the story, I am a little hesitant to write about this book, because I am afraid of unintentionally spoiling something, which is something I sometimes have a habit of doing (just ask my partner and he will tell you). I will do my very best to keep my reflections on the book as spoiler-free as possible, but if you would like to read this book and you are the type of reader who cannot stand any type of spoiler, then you may need to skip this post until you get the chance to read it yourself!
Feel free to join me again once you are done 😉
Here is the premise: a novelist (Ruth) on a small island in British Columbia finds a lunchbox containing a diary written by a sixteen year old Japanese girl (Naoko/Nao), along with an assortment of letters, a notebook, and a watch. From there, we see how the two narratives weave together through time and how they interact with one another. This is a very bare-bones summary of the novel but from this narrative point of departure, the story opens up to involve 104 year old Zen-Buddhist female monks, WWII kamikaze pilots, a lot of conversation about wildlife conservation, and reflections on language. Ozeki covers a lot of territory, so the things I pull out for this post will necessarily be barely skimming the surface. And, again, I want to try to avoid anything spoiler-y in order to make the reading experience as enjoyable as possible.
I thought it was interesting to have the two voices juxtaposed against each other in this way; not only are these two voices living in completely different times and places, but they are also in many ways coming from vastly different people. I actually enjoyed both perspectives, which can be a tricky thing to manage — I am one of those readers who will often gravitate toward one character in a two or more perspective story and will therefore be tempted to skim just to get to the story I care more about. However, both Ruth’s and Nao’s stories were so formally closely knitted together that it was fun to see how both narratives worked in the plot of the novel as a whole.
One of the main themes in A Tale for the Time Being is, obviously, temporality and the way that human beings narrate time — whether that be our own lived experience or our attempts to make a story out of the lives of others. This topic caught my attention in particular because I just recently finished a thesis on temporality and narrative in the context of Ōe Kenzaburō’s novel 万延元年のフットボール (translated as The Silent Cry for the English version of the novel, though not a direct translation of the Japanese) — so I had been, until very recently, up to my eyeballs in concepts of temporality and texts on narratology. Likewise, in a lot of ways I think that Ozeki’s texts follows in a tradition of “found narrative” narratives: a character in the novel encounters a text (usually a diary or a series of letters) in the story’s “present” and then readers enter into that found text with the character, after which point we often waffle between the “past” of the found text and the “present” of the character reading these texts. The “found narrative” narrative also draws from a variety of documents to supplement the original diary/journal, while adding more materiality to it: newspaper clippings, letters, etc. are included to make the person behind the found document feel even more tangible. For instance, we have examples of this similar trope in Dazai Osamu, Natsume Sōseki, and even in Enchi Fumiko, to name a select few.
I think this is a good (and commonly used) trope for a reason and Ozeki has a nice spin on it, particularly through the voice of Nao, who is Japanese but spent a lot of time in the United States and so occupies a liminal linguistic space. The movement between Japanese and English is fascinating when you think of the amount of clever wordplay Ozeki engages in throughout A Tale. For instance, the idea of a “time being” which she introduces on the first page plays with the title of the novel itself, while also pointing out the nature of humanity as beings existing in time:
“Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. 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 cafe 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.” — A Tale for the Time Being, 3
This opening section brings out the type of narrative (and philosophical) twists and turns that Ozeki takes throughout the novel. For instance, there is a fun interplay between who the interpolated “you” is — as Ruth’s husband Oliver points out at one moment in the text. Initially, it seems that there are only two time beings occupying the text: Ruth and Nao, connected by the diary. However, since we are reading the diary along with Ruth, we are also being interpolated whenever Nao says “you”. On top of that, Nao is not simply relaying her own personal story; within her narrative are the stories of her family, particularly her father, her great-grandmother (a monk), and her uncle (who died in WWII).
Furthermore, Ruth’s story is not only about her; within her “sections” of the novel, we also encounter stories of her mother, her husband, and the other people who live on the island. All of these stories that branch out from Ruth and Nao could easily become muddled but Ozeki handles these many narrative strings in a masterful way that allows for clarity of focus on Ruth and Nao. The stories ebb and flow in a very organic way, which keeps the reader interested, while maintaining stable narrative ground.
Another aspect of A Tale that I greatly enjoyed — and that I mentioned earlier — is Ozeki’s wordplay. Not only does she do a lot of excellent wordplay in English, but she also does so in Japanese and often mixes the two:
“Her own name, Ruth, had often functioned like an omen, casting a complex shadow forward across her life. The word ruth is derived from the Middle English rue, meaning remorse or regret. Ruth’s Japanese mother wasn’t thinking of English etymology when she chose the name, nor did she intend to curse her daughter with it — Ruth was simply the name of an old family friend. But even so, Ruth often felt oppressed by the sense of her name, and not just in English. In Japanese, the name was equally problematic. Japanese people can’t pronounce “r” or “th.” In Japanese, Ruth is either pronounced rutsu, meaning “roots,” or rusu, meaning “not at home” or “absent”. — A Tale for the Time Being, 59.
As someone who reads in Japanese and in English, I am always looking for bilingual or multi-lingual texts; thus, I greatly enjoyed how Ozeki incorporated both languages in the text and played around with both. I think that more authors should be allowed (or should feel they can) utilize this approach because I think it is Ozeki’s personal experience, including her background as a Buddhist priest and her experience as someone of Japanese heritage, that allowed her to create a book that is so narratively interesting. I hope that someday there are more multi-lingual authors who feel they can include all of their linguistic tools in their work.
There is so much more that can be said about this book, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers or anything that might dampen anyone’s experience with encountering the book for the first time, I want to leave my reflections as very general impressions. I do think that my enjoyment was heightened by the fact that I had little concrete knowledge of what the book would entail, so I was able to be surprised as the story unfolded. I know this is a much-beloved book, so adding my voice to the chorus of Please read this! will not really matter in the grad scheme of things — but if you have been interested in it, please do pick it up! It was such a unique read in terms of structure and content that I am so glad I finally read. I am now also curious to read some more of her work, particularly A Face: A Time Code, which is such an interesting set-up for a memoir that I am intrigued.
Please do pick this one up if you are interested, it was a fantastic read!