For the Time Being has two parallel narratives: Nao is a teenager in Japan, writing a journal that she states is her suicide note; and Ruth, a writer in an island off British Columbia, who has found Nao’s journal, along with some letters and other artifacts, washed ashore. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, we find out Nao’s story: she lived most of her childhood in Sunnyvale, California while her father worked at a dotcom, and upon returning to Japan, she did not fit in. Her classmates bullied her extensively, eventually capturing multiple episodes on social media. Nao’s father, depressed to be back in Japan, attempts suicide and lives as a depressed shell. Eventually Nao is sent to spend the summer with her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun. Nao’s story is a mashup of social media and Zen, WWII history – her philosophy-student uncle was a conscripted kamikaze pilot, whose letters are part of the artifacts found by Ruth – and 21st century cosplay. (Nao writes in a journal crafted with a cover of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu while sitting in Fifi’s Lovely Apron, a French-themed coffee shop/hostess club.)
Meanwhile Ruth is struggling herself with living on a desolate island after moving from New York City. She “searches for lost time” in many ways: worrying her memory is fading, mourning a memoir she has worked on for ten years but not completed; and finally falling in thrall to Nao’s journal and forgetting that she is reading something that has already happened, rather than reading what is happening now. (Nao’s name is pronounced “now,” to drive the point home.)
This is a many-layered book, concerned with story and time. The story is interested in Zen and in quantum physics, both of which address the concerns of what exists (what’s the story?) and what is now (Nao)?
The book is a treat if you like multiple layers, puzzles, and interpretation. There is even a suggestion of quantum physics at work, or perhaps magical realism. I am still trying to interpret the book, and the beauty of it is that there is no need for there to be one interpretation. Even if you choose to read without interpretation, the novel provides great characters (seriously, Fifi’s Lovely Apron – how can you resist?). But as you think about the novel, it will sneak up on you, whether you give time to interpretation or not.