[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
I consider the Man Booker Prize to be one of the most reliable guides to finding excellent work, much more so than say the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. And so when the long list comes out I dutifully copy it and think about picking up some of them eventually (usually when they’re out of hardcover). But when the shortlist is revealed, I’ll usually leap on those titles and try to read as many as possible as soon as possible. I’ve rarely been disappointed. This year, I’ve worked my way through several, and so far, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is not only my favorite shortlisted Booker this year, but one of my favorite books of the year. Thank you Booker!
My tender feelings for the novel began, as is often the case for me, with the voice.
Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.
You wonder about me.
I wonder about you.
Who are you and what are you doing?
Are you in a New York subway car hanging from a strap, or soaking in your hot tub in Sunnyvale . . .
Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?
Is your girlfriend cooking you a yummy dinner, or are you eating cold Chinese noodles from a box?
Actually, it doesn’t matter very much, because by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth . . .
And if you decide not to read any more, hey, no problem, because you’re not the one I was waiting for anyway.
Ugh. That was dumb. I’ll have to do better. I bet you’re wondering what kind of stupid girl would write words like that. Well, I would. Nao would. Nao is me, Naoko Yasutani, which is my full name, but you can call me Nao because everyone else does . . .
I have tucked my shoulder-length hair behind my right ear, which is pierced with five holes, but now I’m letting it fall modestly across my face again because the otaku4 salaryman who’s sitting at the table next to me is staring, and it’s creeping me out even though I find it amusing, too. I’m wearing my junior high school uniform and I can tell by the way he’s looking at my body that he’s got a major schoolgirl fetish . . .
Are you still there? I just reread what I wrote about the otaku salaryman, and I want to apologize. That was nasty. That was not a nice way to start.
Nao just had me. And she never lost me. Not through any of the ensuing hundreds of pages where she relates how her family moved to Tokyo from Sunnyvale, California when her dad lost his job as a computer guy, how she is cruelly (and I mean cruelly) bullied in school, how her father first attempted to commit suicide, and how one thing led to another until she ended up being dropped off at to spend the summer at an ancient Buddhist temple with her 104-year-old great-grandmother, a long-time nun there.
This is only half the story, though, for Nao’s book has found a reader (whether it’s the one she was waiting for I’m not telling): Ruth, who found the book on the beach of the small island — Desolation Sound — she lives on with her husband. Ruth’s response to the book, her attempts to locate its truth in the real world, along with the events of her own life — her transplantation from Manhattan, her struggles with the book she is writing, her lack of certainty as to her current happiness — make up the other half of A Tale for the Time Being. And if Ruth’s story is less compelling or engaging than Nao’s, the voice less winsomely captivating, it has its own kind of softer, more mature pleasure.
You can see just in that brief description a bit of mirroring going on here, what with both female characters living on an island, both of them being transplants, both of them writers, neither of them sure of who they are at that moment. And one of the true gratifications of the novel is finding all sorts of resonances and echoes between the two: events, settings, turns of phrases that repeat. And perhaps not just between the characters, since it’s hard to miss that the author is also named Ruth, is also Japanese, is also a writer.
There is certainly a meta-fictional aspect that runs throughout A Tale for the Time Being, another aspect I enjoyed. Along with the Zen background, the sense of peace, the idea of living in time. I appreciated as well the fantastic elements, the bits of magical realism that floated in and out in wholly organic fashion: ghosts, things appearing and disappearing, strange travel, a mysterious crow (all the elements that allow me to review it for this website).
This is no gauzily light novel though. It is often quite funny, but there are moments of tragedy big and small. Grief and loss run throughout, and perhaps even worse, the expectation of loss. Her experience at school is brutal both physically and emotionally, while her experience at home with the father, clearly depressed (the reason for his firing is another strong point — a narrative mystery with a perfect payoff) is just as brutal, if not physically so. There are lots of hard edges to cut oneself on as we move back and forth in time and setting.
Sometimes, it’s true, Ozeki stumbles a bit with all that movement, with all she tries to pack in: Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, environmentalism, war, 9/11, the tsunami, biological science (Ruth’s island has to have the most experts per capita of any place on Earth) and it can feel a bit cluttered at the end, while Ruth’s community can come across a little too precious. I wonder if at one point Nao comments on this herself when she says “What’s depressing is when everyone is trying too hard, and the most depressing things of all is when they’re trying too hard and actually thinking that they’re making it.”
But really, these are niggling complains in a work so touching, so funny, so both reverent and irreverent, filled with life (and of necessity therefore death) and spirit and imagination and love. Filled too with wonderful turns of language. Not a perfect novel, you’ll notice a few warts, but one you’ll be sorry to leave at the end. Highly, highly recommended.
Now off to another Booker finalist!