A Tale for the Time Being
Release Date: December 31, 2013
It’s both easy and difficult to describe Ruth Ozeki’s contemporary novel, A Tale for the Time Being. It’s easy to give a simple synopsis: when a tin lunchbox containing a Japanese schoolgirl’s diary from years earlier washes up on a Canadian island’s shoreline, it affects a young writer’s life in unexpected and contemplative ways. But this snippet is ever so simplistic for what is a much deeper, more involving story.
Yet to try to explain further is to be in danger of seeming to get lost in a undeservedly convoluted description. How far does a reviewer go in trying to explain the character of Naoko Yasutani, a teenager who, at first glance, is just another vivacious and giggly girl sitting in a cafe in her school uniform and her Hello Kitty lunchbox, fiddling with her hair and writing in her diary? She seems like any other 16 year old in bustling Tokyo. But it doesn’t take long to discover that Naoko – or Nao, for short – is not a typical Japanese schoolgirl. She is a time being. And she is writing for someone in the future. Who that person is or will be, she has no idea, but that’s not the point.
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.
Everything a reviewer could divulge about Nao from this point on would be unfair to the reader. Not because some mystery would be revealed, or some pivotal plot point spoiled. No, at issue is how to stop? Nao, for all her straightforward simplicity lives in a very complicated world, and has much to think about and to process. She lives in Tokyo with her parents, both of whom are professionals, having moved back to Japan after years in Sunnyvale, California, where her father had been a “hotshot computer programmer” before the dotcom bubble burst. Now he’s a broken, suicidal man, spending hours folding origami bugs out of pages of philosophical encyclopedias.
Her father is named for his uncle, Haruki #1, who was a kamikaze fighter pilot in the war. Haruki #1 was his mother, Jiko’s, only son, and his death affected her deeply. She became a nun, or as Nao puts it, “the famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era”, who eventually became a zen master, living in a remote temple in the mountains. Old Jiko figures deeply in Nao’s story, and the interplay of modern schoolgirl and wizened Buddhist monk, which suggests the interplay of the old with the new, and of our past with our future, is a strong and compelling aspect of this book, because these aspects are not at odds; they just happen to be the way life is.
Yet if Nao’s life seems somewhat idyllically connected to the past and to the cosmos, or some sort of esoteric musing along those lines, it is not. What appears flippant or saucy or worldly at the onset belies the gaunt existence that unfolds in our understanding of her environment, and we marvel at the stoic acceptance that she exhibits at times when lesser characters might bolt or crumble. This is not a Japan that normally comes out in our fanciful fictions. Yet still, the very mundane of Nao’s world, mixed with the everyday mystical aspects of her life, keeps her story very grounded, almost grittily so, allowing us to unquestioningly accept the story unfolding in front of us. (After all, a diary is a place for unapologetic truth, yes?)
And then there is Ruth, the novelist who finds the diary (and the other items that are included with the diary – handwritten letters, a wristwatch). She, too, is a mystery, but one that we understand more readily, one more familiar and easily accessible. She has moved from New York City to live on a creaky old homestead on a green Pacific Canadian rain forest island with her husband, an environmental artist and lecturer, and their cat, named Schrödinger, but more often called Pest. Ruth wonders if the diary came to their shore by means of the 2011 tsunami, a devastating possibility that both intrigues and terrifies her.
Of Japanese heritage herself, although far removed from that faraway nation, Ruth finds herself affected by the diary in an almost possessive way. She needs help with a translation of the letters, which are written in a stilted French, and with unraveling the diary’s mysterious oceanic journey, but she is irrationally reticent about sharing any of the found items with others. Still, it is a small island, and an entrenched community; it doesn’t take long for word of her discovery to spread and garner an amount of reserved curiosity. Yet Ruth reads the diary in small, measured amounts rather than racing to the end, as most of us would do; she wants to match pace with Nao as it is written, or so she says.
Strange things – personal, muted things – happen in Desolation Bay, where Ruth lives. Along with the appearance of the Hello Kitty lunchbox, Ruth’s husband, Oliver, sights a Jungle Crow (Corvus japonensis), a smaller, foreign version of the typical crows indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Oliver – who knows of these sorts of things – surmises that it may have floated over on the flotsam from the tsunami, or simply from the oceanic drift. “It’s not impossible,” he states. “It’s an anomaly, is all.” The black bird seems to hover around the homestead, watching, observing. And one night, Ruth has a dream, of an old nun, high up on a mountainside in Japan. These things affect her, more deeply than she realizes. She determines that from her remote hideaway, she will find out if indeed Naoko Yasutami is a real person, and if so, what happened to her. Obtaining this knowledge becomes important to Ruth, as if finding it out will save Nao somehow. Was the girl swept away in the giant waves of 2011? Is a memory all that is left of her, this diary written to a stranger? Or was history more kind to this time being?
And that’s just a hint of a layer or two of this amazing tale. There is so much more, so much that is seamlessly opened to us bit by bit. And we learn that so much of what we understood at the onset is just the surface tension stretched over a much deeper story. As the narrative switches between Nao and Ruth, we slowly come to the realization that we are truly reading something extraordinary.
Profound, deeply moving, harrowing, at times horrifying, but also at times heartwarming and humorous, A Tale for the Time Being reminds us how important connections are in our lives, and how easily we can misunderstand or disregard those connections if we do not take the time to stop and acknowledge them. Sometimes we must seek them out, on faith, across the miles, through time, without closure but with conviction. This we owe ourselves, at least for the time being (the now and the every one of us).