A Tale for the Time Being

timebeingThe Short Version: Ruth, an author living on a little island on Canada’s western coast, finds a strange parcel washed up in the surf – containing a journal, a smaller diary, and some letters.  She starts to dig into the story of this ephemera and gets wrapped up in the tale of a young Japanese woman named Nao.  As she tries to gather more information, answers seem to become more and more elusive – and as Nao’s life takes sadder turns, she becomes more concerned for someone who might (for all she knows) not even exist anymore.

The Review: This narrative is unstable.  Sounds like something out of a Jasper Fforde novel, right?  But when you pick up this book, how do you read the title?  We (or at least I-and-my-general-cohort-of-relations/friends/people) tend to use the phrase “for the time being” with an emphasis on ‘being’ – the phrase meaning “for right now.”  But if you change the emphasis (as David Cromer so beautifully and brilliantly did in the last NY revival of “Our Town”, making it no longer “OUR Town” but “Our TOWN” – cue brains exploding), it becomes not a tale for the right now but rather a tale for the TIME Being – a creature, a thing, a specific entity.  While the “time BEING” version is not incorrect or invalid, one is not expecting that other emphasis until they read the opening pages of the novel and WHAM, we’re presented with that which is unexpected.  As a result, there is a sudden destabilization of sorts – a quantum double-understanding – that underlies the entire experience of the novel.

Now, I don’t want you to think that this novel is all about conceptual metaphysics.  I’d wager that you actually get more (and more enjoyable) metaphysics out of an aforementioned Fforde novel than you do out of this book – but, wrongfully and woefully, Mr. Fforde doesn’t get nominated for the Booker Prize.  So kudos to Ms. Ozeki for bringing some high-level concepts to ‘regular old literature’ as she does here.  How you react to it is, in the spirit of the many-worlds-theory, entirely up to you.

The narrative flips back and forth between our two main characters – one, a young Japanese girl named Nao, and the other, an middle-aged American woman named Ruth.  I assumed, from early on, that the Ruth of the novel was a version of Ruth Ozeki – not necessarily the author, but also not-not the author.  This is borne up by the fact that she thanks her husband Oliver at the end – and character-Ruth’s husband Oliver is a character throughout the novel.  So already we’re heading into some strange meta waters.  But the main propulsion of the plot is with Nao and figuring out who she is.  She’s writing this diary that Ruth is reading, but how did Ruth get it?  What happened to Nao?  There are concerns regarding the tsunami – but as much as the horrific realities of the tragedy in Japan (the earthquake, the tsunami, the Fukushima meltdown) are considered within the pages of this novel, they’re a background feature.  Not unlike 9/11, when it is mentioned late into the novel – there is a sense of these things happening but not necessarily having a direct effect on the characters.  They are things that happen to the world, large-scale events, and not things that happen to these specific people.

As the sections begin to alternate faster – between Ruth and Nao – the reader looks for the book to pick up speed along with the structure… but it never really does.  I found myself, as I approached about pg. 275 or so (of 400) a sense of almost zen-like detachment.  It may seem like I’m taking the piss when I say that but I’m being very honest: I was reading and engaging with the book, imagining it and experiencing it as I would a book that I might outright enjoy more… but I couldn’t derive pleasure from the experience.  I felt detached from the story, looking at it not quite clinically but simply calmly.  Dispassionately, you might say.  Ruth was a frustrating narrator and her plot doesn’t actually go very far – although it could be said, alternately, that she traverses an incredible distance.  Similarly, Nao’s plot is full of events and “excitement” but the nature of the recounting (a diary, written down after the fact) inevitably feels a little forced at times.  Diaries do not read like traditional narratives and there are moments where you can almost feel Ozeki remember “oh shit, this is supposed to be a diary” and so suddenly Nao interrupts herself or writes something silly or whatever and pulls you back into the conceit.  But the drift is a concern and a problem.

Of course, all of this is connected.  I find that I can’t even escape the concepts of the book as I write about it – terms like drift and tradition have deeply specific references to the narrative and so I have a growing respect for what Ozeki actually accomplished here.  But as a reader of more high-flying metafictional projects, I can’t help but feeling as though there’s something missing here.  Without giving too many spoilers away, the quantum physics stuff ramps up pretty steadily throughout the novel and a dream-like fantastical quality overtakes the last 75 pages or so.  But while the ending provides an interesting riff on quantum entanglements and the possibility of connected worlds, I can’t help feeling like Ozeki pulled her punches.  Science and mystical stuff are not mutually exclusive but when you really get into some of the science and then leave the practice to a sort of liminal netherworld, a reader who can really dig into the meta feels a bit let down.  I also, it bears saying, felt like the ending itself was just a touch more vague than it needed to be – not to mention one little drop-in that seems just completely implausible (although, I suppose it’s less implausible than it used to be).  But anyway.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  I applaud Ozeki’s bold choices in this novel but can’t help feeling like it was a bit mainstreamed along the way.  The masses, who might not read fantastical realism and might be turned off by the metafictional conceits herein (were they broadcast on the jacket copy), might find this book more palatable than something really out there like The Raw Shark Texts or The Eyre Affair.  And I must admit that there are some really beautiful sections of this novel, ones that I’ve not even discussed in this review – the explorations of depression, of bullying, of suicide, of parent-child relationships, of writer’s block, of love and romance… there’s a lot happening in this book and much of it is deftly and smoothly written.  But the conceit is what separates this book from any other and, as such (for me anyway), it sinks or swims on the strength of that conceit.  Here, I can’t help thinking it’s only just carefully staying afloat.

One comment

  1. This book seems so interesting; I’ll have to put it on my list for 2014 books. I have a literary blog, so I’m always trying to look for new book ideas. I love the plot and theory behind this piece. Thanks for the info!

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