First published in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, 24 Nov 2014
Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being has managed the rare feat of winning acclaim on both sides of the genre divide: it not only won the Kitchies’ Red Tentacle Prize, a genre award, it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Something similar happened this year with Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Nebula.) It’s what genre readers would call (and possibly dismiss as) a mainstream novel, but it’s unquestionably a work of what John Clute calls fantastika: it incorporates both fantasy and science fictional elements—on one level you could say that this a novel in which Zen Buddhism meets quantum mechanics—but those elements are put to use in decidedly non-genre ways.
A Tale for the Time Being is simultaneously the story of Naoko (“Nao”) Yasutani, a teenaged girl relocated from California to Japan after her computer programmer father lost his job during the dot-com crash in 2000, and of the semi-autobiographical Ruth, herself Japanese-American and living, like the real Ruth Ozeki, on Cortes Island, British Columbia. Ruth finds Nao’s diary and effects in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes up on her island more than a decade later, possibly as part of the flotsam of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
What unfolds is a meditation on time, memory and existence. Nao pours her life into her diary: her reclusive father Haruki’s suicidal depression; her being viciously bullied at school; her summer at her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko’s Buddhist monastery, where she learns to find her supapowa! and meets the ghost of her great-uncle, Haruki #1, who was a kamikaze pilot in World War II. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, she becomes increasingly concerned about her fate, and tries every means she can think of to contact her—but every trace of Nao’s presence, including the YouTube videos of her that her bullying classmates uploaded, everything she referred to in her diary, seems to have vanished. In the process, Ruth frantically tries to find some way to help, and at one point forgets that Nao is writing in the past—that Nao would now be in her late twenties if she had survived suicide, earthquake and tsunami.
Time is, in fact, a major theme in A Tale for the Time Being, the title of which is actually a pun: The noun is being and the stress is on time. “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be,” Nao writes. “As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future.” Characters interact across time: Nao writes for the future and interacts with living and dead relatives from the past; Ruth reads into the past and conflates it with the present.
The novel’s metaphysical aspects appear to be grounded in Zen Buddhism—Ozeki herself is a Zen Buddhist priest—and centre on the lessons Nao learns from her great-grandmother. But near the end of A Tale of the Time Being, Ozeki offers a quantum mechanical, many-universes solution for the odd things that occur throughout the novel, and she does so in a way that sf readers might find off-putting.
A core sf novel would have handled the speculative fictional concepts of A Tale for the Time Being quite differently. It would have foregrounded and focused on the strangeness at the expense of the characters, and it would not have deemed it necessary to explain that strangeness: sf reading protocols expect the reader to figure things out along the way. According to those protocols, A Tale for the Time Being falls down, because it explains far too much, and in too matter-of-fact a fashion, especially towards the end of the book. Paradoxically, the mainstream writer resorts to infodumping: Ozeki presents, then explains; she doesn’t show, she tells. The net effect for the sf reader is a failure to transcend—an ironic effect in a book so grounded in Buddhist teachings.
But this is essentially a problem of denouement—a failure to stick the landing, something I encounter quite a bit in my reading. But plot is only one virtue; A Tale for the Time Being has others. While Ruth and her husband Oliver fail to convince as characters, her Japanese characters are tremendously vivid. Partly this is because Ruth and Oliver are fictionalized versions of real people; the Japanese characters suffer and bleed all over the page. And the book has layers upon layers of rich detail: dark and sad parts of Japanese culture; a brutally visceral, unflinching and painful look at bullying; Ruth’s husband Oliver, who is a font of interesting information. More than a hundred footnotes explain some point of language or culture—something even the crunchiest hard sf novel would hesitate to do. All of which is wrapped up in a metafictional and metaphysical wrapper, an empathetic, thought-provoking bento of a book. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste, but recognizably speculative fiction all the same.