07 March 2013

Book Revew: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

For my job, I receive books every day with an editor's letter tucked inside, exhorting the 101 reasons why I should read that particular book.  (Why, yes, I do love my job. Thanks for asking.)  But what I do not receive every day is a book with letters from ten different editors around the world, exhorting the 1,001 reasons why I should love this book, and that's the first thing that made me sit up and take notice about Ruth Ozeki's new novel, A Tale for the Time Being. The ARC that Viking sent out included notes from editors in the US, UK, Canada, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Australia, Greece, and the Netherlands. I had not read Ozeki before, but I thought, "A-ha, clearly this is a book to be reckoned with."

And I was right.  Mostly I just want to heap superlatives on this book, but I'll try to tell you a bit about what the book is about, though that will be tricky.  Like the quantum physics that infuse (infuses? Is the word "physics" singular or plural?) the story, it's a book that alters as one reads and observes. Because a summary would be too complicated, I'm going to borrow the publisher's own marketing blurb here:
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Nao has become one of my favorite narrators in literature.  She is very much in the vein of Midori from Haruki Murakami's novel, Norwegian Wood, which is to say she's bubbly, bright, and annoying-but-endearing. Her father is suicidal, and the cruelties she endures at the hands of her classmates (shockingly, with the tacit permission of her teacher) make every American YA novel about bullying look like a bonny good time. It's no wonder that she wants to follow in her father's footsteps and try to end it all.  Yet she has this wonderfully indomitable spirit and sense of humor that juxtaposes in a fascinating way with her avowed fate.

Jiko, Nao's great-grandmother, is also a terrific character. Though there are some secrets she has guarded all of her life, she serves mostly as Nao's sole source of stability and as such, she guides her in the way of  Zen Buddhism. Nothing Nao says or does can offend or surprise her, despite Nao's best efforts.

With the character of Ruth, Ozeki starts to break down fiction's fourth wall. Character Ruth splits her time between New York and an isolated island in the Pacific northwest, just like Author Ruth. Character Ruth is a practicing Buddhist novelist, just like Author Ruth. And the similarities go on.... Ruth (the character) is something of a Japanese scholar trying to defeat a bad case of writer's block, so her obsession with Nao's found diary becomes a way for her to sublimate her anxiety. Her husband is a quantum physics-quoting botanist, so there's that, too.

Top all of that off with the fact that Nao's diary excerpts as they appear in the book are amply footnoted for the benefit of a non-Japanese audience, and that the footnotes are attributed to Ruth--but is it Character Ruth or Author Ruth? It's hard to tell sometimes, and that's the whole point, I think.

I love the opening lines to Nao's first section. They put me a little bit in mind of the Emily Dickinson poem, "I'm Nobody!Who Are You":
My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.
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 (p. 4).
I also love this: "I don't mind thinking of the world without me because I'm unexceptional, but I hate the idea of the world without old Jiko. She's totally unique and special, like the last Galapagos tortoise or some other ancient animal hobbling around on the scorched earth, who is the only one left of its kind. But please don't get me going on the topic of species extinction because it's totally depressing and I'll have to commit suicide right this second" (25).

And this bit about Nao's time living with Jiko at the temple:
They bowed and thanked the toilet and offered a prayer to save all beings. That one is kind of hilarious and goes like this: As I go for a dump/I pray with all beings/that we can remove all filth and destroy/ the poisons of greed, anger, and foolishness.
At first I was like, No way am I saying that, but when you hang out with people who are always being supergrateful and appreciating things and saying thank you, in the end it kind of rubs off, and one day after I'd flushed, I turned to the toilet and said, "Thanks, toilet," and it felt pretty natural. I mean, it's the kind of things that's okay to do if you're in a temple on the side of a mountain, but you'd better not try it in your junior high school washroom, because if your classmates catch you bowing and thanking the toilet they'll try to drown you in it. I explained this to Jiko, and she agreed it wasn't such a good idea, but that it was okay just to feel grateful sometimes, even if you don't say anything (167).
That gives you a pretty good flavor for Nao's narrative sections, equal parts earnestness and impishness. There is so much that is extraordinary about this book, but I fear I'm not doing it justice.  I think I will close with the blurb that I wrote up for Publisher's Weekly Galley Talk, as sometimes it's easier to say more with fewer words:

Zen philosophy and quantum physics blend seamlessly in Ozeki’s brilliant new work of metafiction, where sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the author’s attempts to build up and break down the fourth wall. Or as Jiko, the wise and wizened Buddhist nun from the book might say, “to raise or to raze, they are the same.” Jiko’s calm, hard-earned acceptance of contradictions contrasts brilliantly with the life of her great-granddaughter, Nao, a bullied schoolgirl with a suicidal father, adrift in a sea of emotions she is incapable of navigating. When Ruth, on the opposite side of the Pacific, discovers Nao’s diary among the post-tsunami flotsam and jetsam, she becomes obsessed with Jiko’s and Nao’s stories—to the point where she’s convinced that solving the diary’s puzzles will ease her restlessness and dissolve her writer’s block.  I’ve rarely encountered a novel that has made me think about our world quite as much as this one has, where distance and time are mutable depending on the observer, and what is a reader if not the ultimate observer? Ozeki’s novel feels, impossibly, both timeless and utterly of our time, but I suspect that might be the hand of Jiko guiding me. 

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book, provided to me by my sales rep, which Viking publishes on March 13, 2013.


  1. Since I was an English Lit/Theatre major, I love books and plays that do interesting things with the fourth wall. It's so cool that all of those editors included their praise for the book. Thanks for a great review!

  2. I knew this book was going to be awesome as soon as I heard about it! Glad you enjoyed it :)

  3. I've seen this one around a little. I'm definitely going to give this one a go!

  4. I loved this book, it's so multi-layered but enjoyable just to read at the same time.


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