Review: A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being follows Ruth, a novelist in her forties living with her husband Oliver on an island off British Columbia. Once upon a time, she finds on the beach a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a depressed teenager called Nao, who’s struggling to integrate back into the Japanese society her parents come from after her father loses his job at a Silicon Valley company.

The novel braids these narratives together: Nao’s diary, in which she tries to save her suicidal father, rootles around in her family history, and generally descends into the seedier side of Tokyo; and Ruth’s response to Nao’s diary, her attempts to find out more about Nao and her fate.

This is exactly the sort of book I love to curl up in: baggy, expansive, imperfect and, most importantly, full of heart and authenticity. I’ve been thinking quite a lot over the last year or so about postmodernism and irony: how novels using postmodern techniques like author inserts and footnotes and textual bricolage (novels like Mark Z. Danielewski’s 27-volume The Familiar, or, gods bless it, Catherynne Valente’s Radiance) tend to point out the artificiality of text and narrative without actually doing anything about it.

Which can be fun. But it’s 2018, a year into the Trump presidency and a spitting distance from Brexit. We know by now that narratives are unstable and that neither the tale nor the teller can be trusted absolutely.

No, what I like most about A Tale for the Time Being is that it uses the techniques of postmodernism not to ironise narrative but to authenticate it: to point out the ways it connects people in an uncertain world.

I wrote last week about Twice Upon a Time, Stephen Moffat’s last episode for Doctor Who, is concerned with the idea of timeless moments, with existing asynchronously as memory. A Tale for the Time Being does something similar, only, you know, better.* Ruth rations herself to reading a single entry of Nao’s diary per night, so that she reads about Nao’s experiences at roughly the same pace as Nao lives them. In doing so, she forgets, and elides, the time that lies between them. She starts looking for evidence of Nao and her family outside the diary, concerned for Nao’s wellbeing. It’s Oliver who has to point out to her that everything Nao describes must have happened some years before, for the diary to have crossed the Pacific. If anything was going to happen to her, it would have happened already.

And yet. There’s a speculative element to this book, a hint of magical realism, which will probably annoy some lit-fic readers, but which I found quite lovely. Pages of the diary disappear: one minute they’re crowded with handwriting, the next they’re quite blank. It makes literal that elision of time that happens when we read, our sense that the narrative is happening now even though we know rationally that the ending’s already written. Ruth hasn’t read to the ending yet. So, for her, it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t happened.

There’s also a scene near the end of the book (trying to avoid spoilers) when a dream of Ruth’s appears to influence something that happens in the diary; when, in other words, Ruth gives Nao the concrete help she’s been longing to give her throughout the novel. Again, that impossible elision of time, the sense that narrative and life are happening simultaneously. The diary is timeless, a moment to be experienced asynchronously, a constant now (Nao).

That collapse of time benefits both Ruth and (if we’re to read the diary as “true”) Nao. Nao learns something about her past from Ruth’s possibly supernatural help, and she also gains comfort just from writing her diary. She writes it to “you”: “if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me”. She addresses “you” as a particular friend. Nao’s diary is a cry for help. Ruth reading it, even in the future, makes it an act of connection, a friendship.

And Ruth gets connection from the diary, too: a connection back to her roots in Japan. (Like Nao, Ruth is Japanese American.) A Tale for the Time Being is acutely aware of the artificiality of text and narrative; it’s aware that we cannot really ever know if Nao’s diary is real, if at some point Ruth has taken over writing it, if, as Ruth fears, Nao died in the 2011 tsunami. But it also knows that it doesn’t particularly matter. Stories are our lifeblood. They create miraculous connections across time and space and culture, between a forty-year-old on a quiet Canadian island and a teenager in a teeming Japanese city. They help us help each other – even if it’s only by reimagining each other’s futures.

*It’s interesting that I’m defining A Tale for the Time Being pretty exclusively against other texts. I’m sure there’s a reason for that. I don’t know what it is.

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