Book Look - A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

On the surface, this is the tale of a modern-day author (Ruth) who discovers, washed up on the shore of her remote Canadian island homestead, a journal written some 10-20 years earlier by a suicidal Japanese teenager (Nao), with which she spends the rest of the novel reading and interacting. What’s less clear is the extent to which we’re meant to believe that the process of reading the journal somehow draws Ruth & Nao’s parallel universes close enough that they momentarily intersect, enabling the two women to inadvertently alter each other’s fates.

Which is not to imply that I didn’t enjoy the novel. On the contrary, I found much of this tale engrossing and beguiling. I dare you not to ache for poor Nao, whose tale of trying to navigate a Japanese adolescence ruled by ruthless competition, savage bullying and weird fetishes is so awful, it makes you feel like American schools and culture may be doing something right after all. Or for her poor father, plunged into a life of poverty, shame, and degradation by a capitalist society with no room for ethics and a culture with no tolerance for non-conformity. Or her father’s uncle, an earnest university student dragged away from his studies during the final days of WW2 to be sacrificed as a Kamakazi pilot on the alter of patriotic pride by his country’s sadistic rulers.

In contrast, Ruth’s story is a lot less dramatic – she’s recently lost her mother, she misses living in NYC, she’s got an epic case of writer’s block, she lives on a lush but isolated island with a bunch of “characters,” one of whom is her husband, an auto-didact, nuveau-hippie preoccupied with environmental issue. Because of this, the novel for me felt a little lop-sided – the chapters dedicated to Ruth’s life coming off as rather pale and self-indulgent in comparison to the emotionally rich chapters dedicated to Nao’s narrative.

As I’ve said, however, my problem with this story isn’t that it lacks either heart or good storytelling. Rather, it’s the author’s approach to magical realism that throws me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Marquez, Chabon and other artists of the craft, it’s that magical realism works best when you don’t try to explain it. Ozeki, on the other hand, buries us with possible explanations, everything from Zen philosophy to quantum physics, Proustian metaphysics and ancestor worship. I think the juxtaposition is meant to highlight common themes, but I’m not sure that the explication required to drag these elements into the story (especially the final chapters) doesn’t detract rather than add to the novel’s overarching theme, which seem to be that time may be fluid, but love, sacrifice and loss are eternal.

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