On paper, A Tale for the Time Being is the kind of book I should be all over: it’s got screwed-up families, immigrant angst, deuteragonists whose stories eventually collude, AND footnotes (I’m always a sucker for footnotes). Ruth Ozeki herself is kickass cool, being a filmmaker and a fucking Zen Buddhist priest in addition to an acclaimed novelist, which is like, seriously, c’mon. Not fucking fair.
Practice, of course, is a more complicated matter. I enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being, yes, but it’s the kind of pleasure that comes with qualifications, little notes of except and if only. I can pinpoint all of this ambivalence to one central problem: this book wants to tell two stories at once and frankly, one of those stories just happens to be far more interesting than the other.
These stories are, respectively, those of:
- Nao, a Japanese-American girl who returns to Japan when her father loses his job in California, can’t really adjust, is mercilessly bullied, and ends up considering suicide, but not before she can finish recording the life of her anarcho-feminist Zen Buddhist great-grandmother –
- Ruth (yes, like the author), a Canadian novelist struggling with her writing and her life with her husband Oliver (yes, like the author’s husband) who finds Nao’s diary when it washes up ashore and quickly becomes determined to becomes mildly to track the girl down.
In theory, on their own and untouched by the device of the diary that links them, either of these could stand as a respectable novel. The juxtaposition of the two, however, is where things get tricky. I’m sorry, but when given the option to read about an anarcho-feminist Zen Buddhist priest and a thirty-something author experiencing thirty-something crises, I’m going to choose the later. It’s not that I disliked Ruth, or even that I disliked reading her segments; it’s just that, compared to the story of Nao and her suicidal hikkimori father, I just wasn’t that invested in what struck me as more standard, navel-gazey “literary” fare. Reaching Ruth’s chapters, I felt a little the way I did when I was reading A Song of Fire and Ice and reached a character I didn’t really care about: okay, sure, this is interesting, but do I really have to get read all this shit to get to the good stuff? (Reader, I did).
A Tale for the Time Being isn’t quite as bad in that regard—for one thing, it’s not four fucking thousand pages long—but the principle of the issue remains. It also doesn’t help that Nao’s sections are written in first-person, so that her feelings and voice shine clearly through, while Ruth’s parts are in this more typically literary, respectably well-written but restrained third-person. (You know what I’m talking about, right? This isn’t just some phenomenon I’ve noticed? This sort of distant, subtly elegant but kind of same-y prose you see in so much “respectable” lit these days? No? – ach, du.)
So that’s the two stories in this book, taken individually. In tying them together, Ozeki relies mainly on the found manuscript element of Nao’s diary: as we (as readers) are drawn into Nao’s story, so is Ruth, and so their stories unfold simultaneously and roughly at the same rate (as Ruth has decided to go through to Nao’s entries at the same rate at which they were written). I have a lot of feelings about this technique, most of which can be summed up by it thinks it’s a lot cleverer and more original than it really is. It’s 2017—that’s 50 years since “The Death of the Author” came out, 37 since Roland Barthes’s own death. Playing with the fourth wall isn’t not some huge, profound thing anything; we’ve seen this shit before. And yeah, Ozeki’s probably trying to say some additional postmodern thing about that, how the reading process transforms both the reader and the original text, but this isn’t lit theory 101—I can appreciate the impulse behind a decision without actually appreciating the decision itself. And here, this didn’t quite work for me. Compared to the effortless flow of Nao’s narrative, the metafictional elements here are more clumsy, forced—almost as if Ozeki were holding up a sign screaming “hey, look at me! I’m postmodern and ~experimental!~” Which does not, you know, bode well for how these metafictional elements work in context.
Which brings us, of course, to the footnotes. Footnotes these days are getting cliche, almost shorthand for “postmodern and experimental,” and it’s not hard to see why—they’re a good device, useful at slipping in buried narratives and conveying the hyperactively hyperlinked chaos of modern life. A Tale for the Time Being takes advantage of these qualities doubly, by giving us both a glossary and an appendix. A very House of Leaves-esque move, one that bodes well for the potential of layers of reality and unreliable narrators.
Except, well, then you get into these footnotes, and they don’t feel all that necessary? The glossary of Japanese words certainly felt excessive at time—while there were quite some words/terms I didn’t know, I feel like most people today who use the internet know what “otaku” or “hentai” mean. And while the appendices were more interesting in letting us know the character, there were some parts—like the digressions on quantum mechanics or Schrodinger’s cat—weren’t personally very useful for me. Like, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the footnotes gave you information about Dominican politics, but they also give you little tidbits about the narrative and the narrator’s personality, little subtextual Easter eggs for those of us who already know the score. Ruth, however, like a good academic, has mostly blanched herself from the text, and while this is more realistic and certainly makes the process of reconstructing her authorial presence more challenging, it’s also less fun to read. Which, I suppose, serves as a good summary for Ruth’s presence overall in this book—not bad or even unreadable, just kind of bland.
So, overall then? A Tale for the Time-Being is a good book—approximately 60% of the time. The other 40% of the time is okay, but spent mostly waiting for the book to pick back up again. Based on the talent shown in that 60%, I have no doubt Ruth Ozeki is capable of writing (and has probably already written!) a great book, the best book, you’ve probably never seen a book this great (okay, that’s enough channeling our fascist-in-chief). It just, contrary to what Amazon reviews say, doesn’t happen to be this one. Not for me, at least.