True freedom comes from being unknown.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, A Tale for the Time Being is one of those delightful reads that discusses serious themes with heart, humor, and intelligence. It balances history (ranging from World War II to the dot-com burst to the 2011 tsunami), philosophy, science, relationships, religion, and so on. It’s one of those books that inspired so many thoughts in me while reading that it was difficult to find a single focus for this blog post.
In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth, a writer of Japanese heritage living on a remote island in British Columbia, discovers a diary washed up on the beach. The diary belongs to a Japanese teenager named Naoko (called “Nao”) Yasutani, who’s recently moved back to Tokyo after having grown up in the States. The diary chronicles the callous bullying Nao faces at school, her father’s spiral into depression, her extended philosophical musings, and, most fascinatingly, her relationship with her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Meanwhile, Ruth attempts to uncover the origin of the diary, and of Nao herself.
Overall, it’s a fascinating premise, and an engrossing read. The aspect of the book that interested me most was its exploration of the roles of reader and writer. The novel is at turns narrated by Nao in first person through her diary, in third person from the perspective of Ruth, as well as some letters and emails from other characters.
When I read a book from an author whose work I haven’t explored yet, I tend to do some biographical research on the author with the belief that it’ll help me understand the book better. We all write about what we know. Well, with this novel, this biographical analysis is impossible to avoid. The character of Ruth shares not only her first name with the author, but also pretty much every other fact I could glean from the Internet. Both Ruths live on Cortes Island, are married to a Canadian artist named Oliver, are writers, and spend part of their time in New York City. Most of my lit professors deterred me from relying too heavily on the author’s biography as an inspiration for analysis, but clearly it’s unavoidable here. Ozeki’s choice to create a protagonist so similar to herself is obviously intentional and subversive. Her insertion of herself into a world of fiction toys with the idea that Nao, too, may be real, as the fictional Ruth is determined to ascertain. Once I discovered all the similarities between Ruth the character and Ruth the author, I couldn’t help but search for Nao as well, as well as read up on the 2011 tsunami…which I’m sure were part of the author’s intention.
So by inserting a version of herself into the novel, Ozeki creates multiple versions of herself: as writer (both of A Tale for the Time Being and inside the novel itself), as character (of the world inside the book), and as reader and interpreter (of Nao’s diary). Nao also adopts these roles, and she and Ruth subject these roles onto each other: they both write for each other as the audience and are also the consumers of each other’s words. The relationship between the two characters as reader and writer is symbiotic. The reading enables the writing, and vice-versa. And then there’s us, the reader of the complete work, as a third but necessary participant of the cycle. It reminded me of that age-old riddle: if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make sound? If no one reads to the end of a book, is there really an end?
YES OR NO?: YES. In addition to the above, A Tale for the Time Being contains all the necessary elements for me to fall in love with a book: memorable characters, intricate plot, and engaging prose. Even if you’re not interested in the somewhat paradoxical stuff I’ve written above, I’m sure you’ll still find something to relate to in the novel’s depiction of family, adolescence, community, love, depression…really. There isn’t much this book doesn’t cover.