Continuing my mission to read more recent “literary” fiction—that suspiciously nebulous genre, united only by the absence of spaceships and wizards, as far as I can tell—I recently read Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize-nominated A Tale for the Time Being. My feelings for this book are split very precisely down the middle. You know that creepy character in A Nightmare Before Christmas who spins his face from happy to sad? Yeah. That’s what reading this book was like.
We start with a middle-aged Asian-American novelist living in British Columbia named Ruth (rather like the author herself, this Sherlockian reader deduced). A plastic bag washes ashore one day containing the diary of a Japanese teenager in the midst of confidently and charmingly planning her own suicide. The rest of the novel alternates between Ruth, growing ever more obsessed with this girl who may no longer be alive, and Nao’s own journalistic musings on teenagehood, bullying, Buddhism, and her family history.
First, the good stuff: Nao is a brilliant character. She’s clever and naïve, observant and selfish, cruel and heartbreakingly kind—which is to say she’s a teenager, caught on the cusp of self-identity. If this book were only Nao’s journal, I’d be chasing down strangers and pressing it into their hands.
Even better, Nao’s jaded innocence is our guide through her tangled family tree, a narrative spanning three generations and all the heartbreak and promise of twentieth century Japanese history. Nao’s great grandmother is a Buddhist nun. Her great uncle died in a tokkōtai (kamikaze) attack. Her father is a once-successful software engineer, victim of the bursting dot com bubble. Nao herself is a victim of the inventive cruelty of her classmates, who could probably teach Vlad the Impaler a few things about torture.
It’s a gorgeous story, full of tiny, hurting truths about history (like: when kamikaze pilots died, the government sent their families empty boxes where their ashes should have been) and family and hope and the inadvisability of committing suicide. I loved it.
But unfortunately, at least as much time is spent with Ruth, the reader of Nao’s diary. And Ruth was utterly impossible to like. I don’t mean she was “unlikable” in that vaguely sexist way where readers seem to be fine with characters who are complete asses as long as they’re dudes. I mean her desires and conflicts and ideas were approximately as compelling as cottage cheese.
Ruth, you see, is apparently wealthy enough to retreat to a gorgeous woodland home on an isolated island in British Columbia with her husband and their cat. Her job—her one job—is to work on her next novel. But she’s suffered from about a decade of writer’s block, so mostly spends her time not doing that. I don’t know about you, but I can’t spend hundreds of pages with a woman whose chief occupation is moping about the trials and tribulations of her totally enviable life.
Perhaps the most frustrating element of Ruth’s story was the clumsy handling of the unreal. Because there is absolutely, definitely, an element of the magical or spiritual winding through A Tale for the Time Being. Further evidence that the harsh line drawn between the Literary and the Fantastic are mostly made of pretension, artifice, and marketing campaigns.
Anyway, it becomes clear that Nao’s past may not be perfectly set, and Ruth herself might be able to intervene through time and space. This is a rather lovely idea, a celebration of the secret superpowers of readers and the twisty ways narratives change at the moment they are being consumed.
But the execution of the idea lacks grace and subtlety. It’s as if Ozeki herself couldn’t suspend her disbelief, and spends dozens of pages meandering through the impossibilities of it all. To a reader of speculative fiction, it’s a conversation several steps beyond cliché:
“If I were listening to myself, I’d think I was crazy too. There’s probably a simple, rational explanation…”
Nope. There’s not.
“What does quantum information have to do with any of this?
Oliver shifted the cat on his lap. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘You were speculating about multiple outcomes, right? Multiple outcomes imply multiple worlds. You’re not the first to wonder about this. The quantum theory of many worlds has been around for the last half century…if you buy the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, then everything that’s possible will happen, or perhaps already has.’
Multiple universes? Surely not! Next you’ll tell me about time travel and the butterfly effect, or the Drake equation. Ideas which have been ridden to exhaustion by speculative writers, beaten long after death, periodically revived with new elements, and then killed again.
But alright: Imagine you’d never heard of quantum theory and multiple universes. I still suspect you’d be left feeling as if you’d seen a magic show and then watched a critic hop on stage, reveal all the clever gadgetry, monologue about how Magic is Impossible and then look at the audience and stage whisper: Or is it?
Magic flourishes best in the dark. In the unwritten edges of things, behind curtains and after bedtime. It is by its very nature inexplicable, strange, powerfully unreal. A Tale for the Time Being seems caught awkwardly between a desire to drag it out into the open and shine a flashlight into its face, and the desire to swathe it all in a protective layering of Zen mysticism.
It doesn’t quite believe in itself. And perhaps that’s why the book ends on such an ambiguous, unsatisfactory note, still not-quite-believing its own narrative.
A Tale for the Time Being made me wonder if, perhaps, I’m not the only one who ought to wander outside her genre.
 “What, do you just hate rich people?” you might ask. There would be a long, awkward pause before I said no. But if you give me a character rich enough to hang out and not write for a decade on her own private island, she better have more compelling problems than an overabundance of leisure time. Plus, Ruth’s interactions with her neighbors have all the paternalistic charm of an English gentleman visiting his tenant-farmers.