Diary pulls woman into the past


Interlocking narratives about a Japanese girl and a writer drive this compelling novel.

Los Angeles Times

Ruth Ozeki opens her third novel with a small deception — or, more accurately, a sleight of hand. Forgoing context or explanation, she plunges us into the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao. The language is excitable, breathless even: “(I)f you decide to read on,” Nao exclaims, “then guess what? You’re my kind of time being and together we’ll make magic!”

Yet just as we start to wonder what we’re getting into, Ozeki flips the whole thing around. There is a section break, and when Nao returns, she is tougher, far more pointed. “Ugh,” she sniffs. “That was dumb. I’ll have to do better. I bet you’re wondering what kind of stupid girl would write words like that.”

The point, of course, is that we are all more than one person, one perspective, that identity is in a constant state of flux. But even more, Ozeki’s move telegraphs that the book is going to play with our preconceptions, that it will shift on us, turn on us, that it will be as difficult to pin down as a wisp of smoke. All of that is true of A Tale for the Time Being, which is why it’s such an exquisite novel: funny, tragic, hard-edged and ethereal at once.

The book is constructed around a pair of interlocking narratives — Nao’s diary, which is really more of an extended suicide note, and the story of Ruth, a novelist who lives on Vancouver Island and one day finds washed up on the beach a package containing the diary and other artifacts. This allows A Tale for the Time Being to find resolution in an unflinching resistance to being resolved. As Ruth observes in the closing pages, “I really thought I would know by now. I thought if I finished the diary, the answers would be there or I could figure it out, but they weren’t, and I can’t. It’s really frustrating.”

The frustration has to do with Ruth’s inability to verify Nao’s story or even to uncover any external trace of her (or the people about whom she writes). Further complicating matters is the girl’s curious lack of a digital footprint, which means any attempt at confirmation is open-ended, incomplete. What’s compelling about A Tale for the Time Being, however, is that it uses this uncertainty to push below the surface, to make a series of unexpected links.

Ruth’s life closely mirrors that of her creator, for Ozeki wants us to think about the boundary between fact and fiction, between what we know and what we project. Like Nao, Ruth is many people: an author, a character, a daughter, a wife. Like her, she exists equally in the world and in the imagination, a conundrum Ozeki makes explicit by having both of them write.

Writing, after all, offers a way to give shape to experience, to pin down what Ruth’s husband Oliver calls “(t)he eternal now.” And yet, if as Ruth suggests, “writing was about immortality. Defeating death, or at least forestalling it,” the truth is that death, or even just the future, comes to us regardless. There is no forestalling anything.

“Life is fleeting!” Ruth proclaims, “Don’t waste a single moment of your precious life! … Wake up now! … And now! … And now!” The exhortation comes by way of the 13th century Zen master Dogen, who divided each day into more than 6 billion moments to remind himself of the importance of remaining present and engaged. Nao (pronounced “now,” one of a series of double meanings) invokes him also, as do a number of other characters, including her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun, and the old woman’s son Haruki, a reluctant kamikaze who died during World War II.

Both Nao and Ruth are faced with complex puzzles: for the former, the question of her own existence, and for the latter, a memoir of her late mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, on which she has been working for 10 years. Both are trapped by old ways of thinking, old ways of seeing, by the weight of their respective pasts.

What Dogen offers is a way to reconsider, to frame time not as trap but liberation, to see in its evanescence something of the freedom they seek. That’s the source of the novel’s title, the idea that we are all “time beings” — beings who live in time for the time being, another double meaning that gets to the heart of what Ozeki has in mind.

A Zen priest herself, she has written something of a Buddhist novel, fueled by an abiding sense of paradox. This is most clearly represented by Haruki, whose thoughts on mortality (“Time is so interesting to me now that I have so little of it”) and consequence illuminate the book like a quiet flame.

To develop these ideas still further, Ozeki brings in dreams and meditations on physics and ocean currents, as well as a computer “spider” that literally erases people from the data stream. A Tale for the Time Being ends with a riff on quantum theory and the concept of multiple worlds — a framework in which anything that can happen will happen, which means the universe is constantly branching into exponentially expanding parallel realities.

That’s heady stuff, but it hangs together for a couple of reasons — the exuberance of Ozeki’s writing, the engaging nature of her characters and, not least, her scrupulous insistence that it doesn’t have to hang together, that even as she ties up loose ends, others come unbound. Or, as Ruth the character asserts when her husband asks if, in this world, she is happy, “Yes, I suppose I am. At least for now.”

David Ulin reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category