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.