A good read transcends into the eternal, melding the real now with a timeless present. Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being” is all that and more: a quietly amazing achievement, a careful construct bridging quantum physics and the role of the reader/observer, a Zen eternity of multiple realities within a single I-novel/not a novel.
Ozeki, an ordained Buddhist priest, leaves unmistakable biographical fingerprints within her masterpiece, but that’s just one of the book’s essences. Her layered strands of mind-candy weave to form a good read that reverberates in thought long after the final page.
The narrative frames itself around Ruth, a writer based on a small Pacific Northwest island (like Ozeki) with connections to New York (like Ozeki) and a husband named Oliver (like Ozeki). Ruth meets Nao, a young Japanese returnee, in the purple-scrawled pages of a mysterious diary washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Thus the author’s and the readers’ (ours and Ruth’s) journey begins.
It’s not as confusing as it sounds, and the novel’s simplicity within such complexity is one mark of its great achievement. As Ruth becomes involved in reading the diary and unpacking the lunchbox’s accompanying mysteries (a sky-soldier military watch, a secretive French journal and 50-year-old Japanese letters) the reader becomes involved in multiple narratives originating with Ruth and Nao. Cultures collide as Nao’s story details inhumane bullying, her own as a returnee in modern Japan and that of her great-uncle, a kamikaze pilot during World War II. Buddhist ideas of time and space link to modern physics and modern life. Ancient beliefs like the myth of the Crow Prince connect to the current reality of jungle crows in Japan, one who somehow finds its way to Ruth’s island with an important moment of “now” (a play on the similar pronunciation of Nao) discovery at the novel’s climax. Nao’s grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist priest, speaks across time in dreams to Ruth in the novel, mirroring Ruth the author’s other vocation. Each filament of the narrative intricately connects to another, and its beauty forms from the finished/unfinished whole. As Jiko tells us, “For the time being/ Words scatter … / Are they fallen leaves?”
As a writer turned reader, Ruth’s character must transcend control and the general, unattractive whininess of the observer — just as Nao must overcome herself before she can battle the bullies and demons at work in her world.
Although the metaphysical strands may take several days or weeks of post-read unraveling, the language itself can be firmly appreciated in the now: “The longer I stared, the dizzier I got, until I felt as if the world was tipping and pitching me forward down the mountainside into the long throat of the night.”
Ruth and Nao each transmute the world of the novel into the wider world of true literature by the power of their prose, and many sentences or phrases had this reader stopping and rereading, savoring the beauty of Ozeki’s words.
With the same fresh spontaneity of painting spring, Ozeki presents a novel that simply defies further explanation. Read it yourself; it’s just a great read.
Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School.