A Tale for the Time Being is a novel about Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, writers and readers, writer’s block and reader’s block, hate and love. It moves fluidly through the past and present and involves some dynamic and admirable female protagonists. Small wonder it was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker Prize (and should have won instead of The Luminaries).
The narration moves back and forth between Ruth, a present-day middle-aged writer living on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia, and Nao, a 15-year-old Japanese girl living in Tokyo in 2001. Ruth finds Nao’s diary and some other personal items in a carefully wrapped Hello, Kitty lunch box while walking along the shore. Ruth has been struggling to write her next book, a memoir, and is drawn into Nao’s diary, which is written for her, or to be more precise, Nao wrote the diary for the person who would find it — a fellow “time being,” she hopes. Nao’s intent is to write the story of her great grandmother and then commit suicide. Nao says of her great grandmother Jiko (who died at age 104):
She was a nun and a novelist and New Woman of the Taisho era. She was also an anarchist and a feminist who had plenty of lovers, both males and females, but she was never kinky or nasty…. (E)verything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap.
Nao is an excellent narrator. She is clever, funny and honest, even when she reveals things about herself that are not so flattering. Much of the diary is actually her story and how she got to meet and become influenced by Jiko, and it is a rather sad tale. Nao feels more American than Japanese because she lived in California until the recent move back to Japan. The transition to life in Japan was rough because her family had fallen on tough economic times and her father Hiruki #2 had become suicidal. (Hiruki #1, Jiko’s son and Hiruki #2’s uncle, died as a kamikaze pilot in WWII.) Nao does not fit in at her school and is bullied both psychologically and physically. She begins to skip and takes up writing a diary, the cover of which is the binding for Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu — The Search for Lost Time. Someone has taken a copy of Proust’s work, ripped out the pages and replaced them with blanks. As Nao sits in a cafe writing, she muses, “…the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction.” The fact that now and Nao are pronounced the same is not lost on our narrator or the reader (Ruth and us). Is Nao doomed to extinction? Will she commit suicide and if so, why?
The stories of Jiko, her son and her grandson (Nao’s father) are full of pain and beauty. Jiko is especially awesome as she helps Nao discover her “SUPAPAWA” (superpower). Ruth’s place in the narrative is, I believe, similar to our own. She has her own backstory — a mother who died after battling Alzheimers, a stagnant writing career, a husband who loves the remoteness and isolation of the island while Ruth misses life in the city. But Ruth gets so drawn into Nao’s story that she forgets sometimes that Nao’s story is in the past. Since Nao’s story is non-fiction to Ruth, Ruth can put herself in it and try to track down Nao and her father through a university professor in California who knew them. Ruth, like the rest of us, wants more than the story is giving her and she helps propel it to its conclusion. In the last section of the novel, Ruth the character and Ruth Ozeki the writer teach us a little about quantum physics, quantum information and Schrödinger’s cat.
Ozeki’s connection of zen with quantum physics is brilliant. She’s taught me quite a lot about those heady topics and does it in a most engaging fashion. What some might call “magical realism” in the conclusion of the novel becomes more real than magical. That might be her SUPAPAWA — blurring the lines between reader and writer, between the real and the magical.