A few weeks ago, J. Robert Lennon stirred up controversy with his article in Salon.com about the staleness in contemporary literary fiction. As a fan of both literary and genre fiction, I wanted to argue with him, but I was unfortunately reading A Tale for the Time Being and it was proving his point. At the same time, I was also in conversation with a few MFA friends about the purpose of plot in story versus character study. We were both bemoaning a lecture by one of our professors who said writing should be all about the characters, but we both disagreed and countered that within a novel, the plot and its progression is equally important as character’s growth. Again, A Tale for the Time Being stuck out as an example of why our counter argument was so important. It’s also one element of writing that I stress with my students – without plot there is no story.
I write all this not to say that A Tale for the Time Being doesn’t have a plot, because it does, otherwise what would be written on the book jacket? But that it is lost in the character study that is the meat of the story.
The novel tells the story of two women, separated by time and an ocean. Nao Yasutani is a 16 year old Japanese girl who grew up in Sunnyvale, CA, but is now living in Tokyo and having difficulty adjusting to her new way of life. Ruth is a Japanese-American writer living in a small Canadian coastal town who happens upon a washed up lunchbox that contains Nao’s journal among other keepsake items. Intrigued by Nao’s writing, Ruth sets out trying to find the young girl, as well as how the journal ended up on the Canadian shore, as the novel is set sometime after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Northern Japan. Ruth connects to the girl through her writings and desperately looks to seek her out, while at the same time struggling with her own mid-life crisis.
A Tale for the Time Being is more of a character study of the two women, specifically Nao’s impact on Ruth’s life. Of the two, Nao’s character is much more interesting. Her voice is vibrant, fresh and very true to a young teenager experiencing the harshness of life for the first time. She wants to tell the story of her great-grandmother, but often ends up writing about her parents and dealing with being bullied at school. She is miserable in Japan, but Ozeki does not write her as a whiny kid. Nao is witty and intelligent, and often optimistic, even in her darkest moments. She has a unique sense of humor that allow her to feel despair, but not be stuck there. I looked forward to her passages, more than the passages from Ruth’s perspective.
Ruth is the exact opposite of Nao, in that she is depressed about the direction of her life but is doing her best to fake her happiness/accept her place. Ozeki writes Ruth as a very dry character who has only moments of showing a unique personality. I know, or rather I presume, Ozeki wrote these two women to be foils of each other, but she could have done more to Ruth’s character, made her more of a person instead of a shell, as Ruth’s passages tend to slow down the narrative.
Ozeki’s choice to focus on the characters, a study of how one woman is changed through the writing of another, can make for an interesting read, but due to Ozeki’s structure, and lack of development in Ruth’s character, the novel is very slow and, unfortunately, not very intriguing. I struggled reading this novel, which is disappointing because I was looking forward to reading it. In this case, my friend and I’s assessment that you need plot to keep the reader’s attention is correct. Had A Tale for the Time Being had more of a plot, had forward movement, had both Ruth and Nao change, it would have been an excellent read. Instead, it was a novel that could use a little more time being plotted out.