Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review: A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

cover art for A Tale For the Time Being, featuring the title spread across five horizontal illustrations in tones of yellow, turquoise, blue, and red.
Novelist Ruth is in the throes of extreme writer’s block when she finds a freezer bag on the beach. The bag contains an English diary, a French diary, a bundle of Japanese letters, and a WWII Kamikaze pilot’s watch. Eager to unravel their mystery, she researches the diary’s antecedents one entry at a time.

Teenage diarist Nao intends to write the story of her great-grandmother’s life as a feminist-anarchist-novelist-Buddhist nun, but the tale she spins is far more personal, and far more connected to Ruth’s own British Columbian existence, than either writer or reader could have predicted.

I knew A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING was special from the get-go. The opening chapter--the first entry of Nao’s diary--sets the tone for the entire book as it slips back and forth between contemplative, adorable, and horrific with little regard for any boundaries that may exist between the three. It's immediately clear that this is a gorgeously written, meticulously constructed piece of fiction about how we tell and react to stories, about recollection, and about the self.

Y’all know I’m a total sucker for stories about stories, and A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING fits the bill to a tee as it interweaves two very different womens’ lives. We have Nao’s first person account of her family’s move to Japan, and of the troubles she experiences there. Every so often, we pause for Ruth’s third person reaction to the text, and for updates on her own life on a small island off the coast of British Columbia. Ruth’s story helps relieve some of the tension from Nao’s, whilst simultaneously adding greater tension on another level altogether.

As I read it, A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is very much concerned with what we expect from our stories, and how they so often deliver the unexpected instead. Nao tells us straight out that she intends to write about her great-grandmother Jiko’s life, but her own story distracts her. Jiko remains a constant presence, but the focus rests on Nao, no matter how she might wish to direct it elsewhere.

The epistolary format ensures Nao will eventually catch up with her own story, too. What begins as a memoir of sorts is destined to morph into an as-it-happens reaction to events. Nao becomes keenly aware that not even the writer can accurately predict where their story will go until it’s run its course.

Ruth, a writer herself, experiences something similar from the reader’s perspective. She begins Nao’s tale with definite ideas as to the context in which it exists and the path it has to follow. So invested is she in her own sense of what’s going on that she misses many important details that could clue her in to the truth. Her husband occasionally points these inconsistencies out to her as she reads the diary aloud to him, but he, too, sometimes becomes so entranced by certain appealing elements that he misses their darker undertones.

It’s often said that the first draft of anything is simply the writer telling the story to herself. The reader recognizes that Nao’s story surely went through many revisions under Ozeki’s careful hand and so is not, in fact, a first draft, but it’s presented to us as such through the lens of the novel. It’s a girl remembering things, and consequently exorcising demons and making sense of certain aspects of her life. The very immediacy of it renders it unreliable, and Nao’s narrative voice does little to put us at ease. She’s snarky and changeable; a complex, compelling narrator we want to believe, but are reluctant to fully commit to.

Or maybe that’s just me. To be honest, I almost never trust first person narrators. Not completely. It’s too easy for them to fudge the truth and leave things out. I always question what they’ve avoided and where they’ve revised the past, and this textual interrogation usually forms the backbone of my reading experience.

Because writing isn’t just about the writer. It’s also about the reader, who tells herself the story with some help from outside sources. As Ruth makes her way through Nao’s diary, she heavily annotates it to ensure it makes sense to non-Japanese readers--and, by extension, to herself. Ruth’s own preoccupations heavily colour her response to Nao’s story, to the point where she actually becomes a participant in the narrative. She discovers it’s up to her to shape certain portions, both via the translations she commissions for the Japanese letters and the French diary, and through her own emerging connection to Nao.

In a way, Ruth is the everyreader. The story cannot continue until she fully commits to it.

It’s awesome, y’all.

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is enough of a general novel that you could likely read it as such, should you wish; however, it also contains a strong speculative component that I’m sure will appeal to readers who enjoy such things. At the very tip of the iceberg, we can’t ignore the fact that Ruth Ozeki, the author, lives in British Columbia and has a husband named Oliver--just as Ruth-the-character does. This dip into metafiction immediately raises questions as to the story’s presence within our own, outside-the-book world. Should we take A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING as fictionalized truth? To what extent is Ruth-the-character the same person as Ruth Ozeki?

The above is a fairly subtle speculative element, easy to consider in another light if one wishes. After all, self-insertion is nothing new; authors have done it for centuries, and will continue to do so for centuries more because it’s an effective way to draw the reader into the story. This isn’t something I made up, it says; this is something I found and thought to share with you.

The ghost and the quantum mechanics that crop up later in the story are more difficult to gloss over, though it’s far from impossible to do so. The ghost appears in Nao’s diary during a Buddhist festival intended to honour the dead, and we’ve already established that Nao is an unreliable narrator. I prefer to take him as he stands, since he fits beautifully into the narrative and appeals to my own worldview, but you may feel differently.

In Ruth’s third person narration, we’re treated to a mix of the magical realist and the science fictional. A Japanese crow haunts Ruth’s home, perhaps to act as a mythical guide as she sifts through the diaries and letters. What’s more, the materials themselves keep changing. Ruth’s research uncovers important information that disappears when she goes to reread it. The diary, too, is far from static. Words vanish or change depending on how Ruth reacts to them.

Here, too, Ozeki provides us with some potential in-story explanations that fit with our observable world. We know Ruth’s mother lived with Alzheimer’s and Ruth worries about her own poor memory. It’s entirely possible she’s begun to suffer from the same disease that plagued her mother. There’s also some talk of computer programs that could account for certain lapses in her online research.

Me, though, I’m quite happy to read A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING as a magical realist story with hints of the science fictional; something like a contemporary Robertson Davies, if you will. I neither need nor want the real world to exert absolute control over my fiction, and I’m thrilled to discard its influence here in favour of something more interesting and a touch less defeated.

On that note, I should mention that the book itself is far from pleasant. Nao has a terrible life. The bullying she endures at school culminates in an attempted rape. Her father attempts suicide multiple times. Her great uncle, who wrote the letters and French diary, endures multiple torments during his military training, including harsh beatings and rape by his superior officer.

Ruth’s side of things is more subtly sad, but there’s still a strong strain of unease there with her dead mother, her own memory problems, and of course the effect Nao’s story has on her own life.

Which is to say, A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING deserves a trigger warning.

That said, it’s more than worth your time. The pace does flag somewhat in the middle, but it picks up again in such a big way that I had no choice but to stay up until the wee hours to finish it.

I dearly wish I’d read A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING just a few weeks earlier so I could’ve gone to hear Ruth Ozeki speak at McNally Robinson, my local bookstore. I’d love to hear her talk about this book, particularly from a self-insertion angle. I guess I’ll just have to hope she comes back for the paperback release.


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  1. >>I knew A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING was special from the get-go.

    Hahahaha, I think I said literally these exact words about this book. It is! From the first page I felt like it was special. It was one of my favorite books of 2013 -- bought it for my lovely mum's birthday and everything.

    1. I wish I had someone to give it to, but I'm not sure it's quite the right fit for any of the people in my life with whom I exchange gifts. Sigh. Maybe I can drum up an excuse to give it to one of the others.

  2. I really want to read this but just haven't got around to it. I am glad you liked it!

    1. I have a feeling you'll really enjoy it.

  3. Ruth Ozeki is going to be at the LA Times Festival of Books! I AM SO EXCITED

    I really loved this book when I read it last year. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, too!

    1. Eek! I hope you got to hear her speak!