A Tale For The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

I have an opinion.

Just the one, but an opinion nonetheless. And my opinion is this: that most writing is, at least in part and at least tangentially, about the writing process itself. Books about books, about creation, about reading, about interpretation. How much reading do we come across in books?

Ozeki seems to share the same view because her Booker nominated A Tale For The Time Being revolves almost solely around the act of reading and the relationship between Ruth the reader and Nao the writer.

Nao is a sixteen year old schoolgirl in Japan and a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing her diary, a sheaf of letters, another diary in French and a broken watch washes up on the shores of the remote island on which Ruth lives with her husband Oliver and their cat, who is named Schrödinger but known as Pest.

The novel revolves around the way that Nao’s diary affects Ruth, uncovers memories and worries and increasingly existentialist concerns.

Nao is one of the most lively and engaging narrative voices that I have read in a long time. There is a lightness and a deftness, a sense of presence in the prose of her diary which is really quite astounding. Listen to the opening pages:

You wonder about me.
I wonder about you.
Who are you and what are you doing?
Are you in a New York subway hanging from a strap, or soaking in your hot tub in Sunnyvale?
Are you sunbathing on a sandy beach in Phuket, or having your toenails buffed in Brighton?
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?
Are you curled up with your back turned coldly toward your snoring wife, or are you eagerly waiting for your beautiful lover to finish his bath so you can make passionate love to him?
Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap? Does her forehead smell of cedar trees and fresh sweet air?
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, wondering if you should keep on reading.
And if you decide not to read any more, hey, no problem, because you’re not the one I was waiting for anyway. But if you do decide to read on, then guess what? You’re my kind of time being and together we’ll make magic.

There is a wonderful simplicity and directness and – as I said at the beginning – a presence.

Ruth’s narrative – in third person – is, in my opinion, the less successful half if the book. These sections are well written and thoughtful and there is a sense of location and setting but her narrative is hugely introspective whereas Nao’s expressive. As Ruth is a novelist struggling to create her second book, and married to an artist whose medium is measured in geological ages, that thoughtfulness and introspection is natural but rather distancing to us mere mortal readers.

Ruth’s narrative revolves around the nature of ideas, information, existence and influence. It is significant and deliberate that the cat is named Shrödinger: quantum theory creeps into the final pages. In my view, a little too much quantum theory!

In this post, I used the image of the palimpsest. The tablet or the parchment which is written on, wiped clean and written over. It is the image of a palimpsest that Hamlet evokes when, in one of my favourite Shakespearean quotation of all time, he says

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables!—Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

Of course, Hamlet’s problem is that papers and tablets have a memory: markings and shadings and letters from previous writing remain and blur the boundaries between past and present, between lover and revenger.

And the same occurs here. The narrative is one of the most layered tales I have read: in addition to the two narratives of Nao and Ruth, the text is littered with footnotes which I initially read as authorial but which quickly reveal themselves to be part of the narrative itself; there are the translated letters of Nao’s great uncle; and his secret diary recounting the same events differently; there are appendices which again blur the lines between authorial and narrative appendices. Even the simple fact that the character is named Ruth as is the author continues to layer the narratives and to confuse and conflate those layers. Books are hidden within the covers of other books. Dreams and memories layer the reality of Ruth’s life. The diary freezes Nao as a sixteen year old, bridging the gulf of time from its date of creation to the time it’s read, creating a sense of urgency and immediacy which seduces both Ruth and the reader. There are the stories of Jiko, Nao’s great grandmother and anarchist, feminist nun; the story of Nao herself as an outsider, bullied and ostracised; the stories of her father and his career and suicides.

Because of these myriad layers, it is almost impossible to pin down what the story of the novel is except to return to the relationship between reader (or readers) and writer (or writers).

It’s not unreasonable or infrequent to see writers’ works influencing the lives of those people who read them. What this novel posits towards the end is where that leaves the reader? Are we as much a construct of the writers as their characters are? Are we being written? And can we reverse the influence? Is there any way in which we as the reader can influence the writer through the act of reading?

This is one of those rare novels: a positively and challenging intellectual read which simultaneously works as a narrative. When I started reading, I was cross that I loved Nao’s voice so much but already knew this hadn’t won the Booker. I think, actually, that whilst A Tale For The Time Being clearly warrants inclusion on the Shortlist, the slight – so slight – imbalance towards philosophy over narrative in the final chapters justifies it’s not winning.

Although I say that blindly, not having read The Luminaries yet!

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