Ruth Ozeki opens her third novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” 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 (let’s not be coy) 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.
It’s no coincidence that the life of Ruth the character 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.
In some sense, this establishes Dogen — or his ideas, anyway — as a leitmotif, a warning about the dangers of distraction, to which both Ruth and Nao fall prey. But even more, his presence helps create a fictional universe in which the two story lines can come together, not because one can ever verify the other but because their journeys are fundamentally the same.
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 they, that all of us, are “time beings” — that is, 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 ("[Y]ou could even say that the very outcome of this war will be decided by a moment and a millimeter … But how am I to know?”) 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.”
A Tale for the Time Being
Viking: 422 pp., $28.95