Title: A Tale for the Time Being
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Summary: In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century, in a diary that becomes her only solace. Across the Pacific, novelist Ruth discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future. Deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. 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.
Oof—A Tale for the Time Being was a capital-D Doozy of a book, and I really, honestly do not know what to say about it other than it put me to sleep every time I read it and also took me a month to finish. (In that same time frame, I started five books and finished three.) I certainly wanted to like it—otherwise, I would have taken it off of my TBR, right?—and, based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews (74% of Goodreads users rated it four or five stars) and its collection of nominations and awards (nine), a lot of other people liked it, too.
So what happened? 🤷♀️
Was it because, although things occurred, it didn’t really feel like anything happened? Part of the novel is a meditation on ‘nowness’ as well as how time is explored through fiction, but it was hard to feel engaged with either Naoko’s storyline or Ruth’s. Within the confines of the novel, Nao’s present was already Ruth’s past, and I also wasn’t as obsessed with Nao’s story as Ruth, which meant that literally half of the book—Ruth being obsessed with Nao and thinking she can affect Nao even though everything that will happen has already happened—just wasn’t that interesting.
Or, was it because I never quite bought into the format of the novel? A Tale for the Time Being is, essentially, a translation of Nao’s diary—literally a book-length meditation of the concept of Nao as a ‘time being’—with footnotes and appendices written by Ruth-the-character as well as chapter breaks which focus on Ruth’s and her husband Oliver’s life on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. I found it kind of strange that Ruth and Oliver are never given last names and equally (doubly?) strange that the book is written by a Japanese-American novelist named Ruth… who lives in the Pacific Northwest… with her husband Oliver. The similarities could be completely (intentionally) coincidental, but the whole thing just further reminded me why I dislike autofiction so much, and whatever joy I’d begrudgingly found from the book was quickly erased by the abrupt and confusing ending.
Had I not decided to participate in the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, I highly doubt I would have prioritized reading A Tale for the Time Being. I’m sure that I would have always planned to—would have moved my copy of the book from house to house and hoped that I would eventually get to it—but it isn’t the type of novel that sounds all that interesting to me anymore (other than, you know, the high praise and accolades). It is very much the type of book twenty-five-year-old me thought she should read, but something I’m learning is that I don’t have time for shoulds anymore. If I have to force myself to sit down and read something, it probably means maybe I should be reading something else.