Monday, April 22, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being opens with Japanese teenager Nao Yasutani sitting in a French maid cafe in Tokyo, writing in a copy of Proust that has had the original pages cut out and new ones inserted to create a diary. Nao is alternately perky, philosophical, kinky, and apologetic, but then suggests she is going to devote the diary to the story of her remarkable great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun.

Readers then meet the second narrator, a writer named Ruth. Ruth spent several years caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer's. Since her mother's death, she has tried to write a memoir of the period, but her work is badly stalled and she's feeling alienated from her husband Oliver (something of a know-it-all environmental activist) and trapped on the Canadian island where they live. Then she finds a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox. In the lunchbox are Nao's diary, an antique men's watch, a packet of letters written in Japanese that Ruth cannot read, and another diary written in French. Ruth begins reading Nao's diary, and Nao's comments on suicide cause her to become concerned. However, she doesn't rush through the diary, instead reading it at the pace at which it was written. She also begins to research Nao and her family members and has the letters and French diary translated. Both of these items, it turns out, were written by Nao's great-uncle, Haruki. Haruki (or Haruki1, as she refers to him, since her father, an unemployed and suicidal programming whiz, is also named Haruki) was a 19-year-old philosophy student in Tokyo when he was drafted into the military in WWII and became a member of the Special Attack forces (kamikaze pilots). All of these documents are intercut with Ruth's story, as she struggles to find out what happened to Nao, her parents, and her great-grandmother and to address the problems in her own life. The story takes a turn toward what I would call magical realism, when pages disappear from Nao's diary and reappear after Ruth dreams that she intervenes in the Yasutani family's lives; Ozeki, however, introduces quantum physics as a possible explanation for these odd events.

The story of Nao's family is compelling, and the parallels between the dilemmas faced by the two Harukis are well drawn. On the other hand, I had a number of issues with the book. I didn't care greatly about the problems of Ruth and Oliver, and I was irritated by the magical realism aspects of the story. Furthermore, Ozeki seemed to be "kitchen-sinking" the narrative, throwing in so many different ideas and issues that the book becomes a jumble. I'm still glad I read it for the story of Nao's family and for Ozeki's writing, but I wish it had been a little less diffuse.

Favorite passages:
Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader's eye. Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.

Two months have passed since our great send-off at Meiji Shrine, that ceremony of sad puppets in the cold and bitter rain. Dear Mother, I fear Monsieur Ruskin was wrong. The sky does weep, and there is nothing false about pathetic fallacy.

Still, what's the point in beating yourself up when other people will do it for you?

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