A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time BeingI seem to be reading more good literary novels of late. They seem to fall into two categories: realistic stories and ones that incorporate elements from fantasy, science fiction, or both.

The realistic ones that I’ve enjoyed have been detailed stories about people – mostly women – from places I don’t know well, such as found in the work of Elena Ferrante and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (I continue to be bored by fiction about creative young women from the U.S. suburbs moving to New York City and having affairs with older male supposed mentors.)

Not every literary author is successful at introducing the fantastic into their work, but some of them do it brilliantly. I’ve written before about the amazing work of James McBride (The Good Lord Bird and Song Yet Sung). My most recent find is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.

My only regret is that I didn’t read it a couple of years ago, when it first came out, so that I could nominate it for a Nebula. Key plot elements in this story turn on freaky implications of quantum mechanics and in my mind, any story that stretches physics is definitely SF. And then there are the ghosts, not to mention the crow, and the writing that disappeared and came back.

The story is about Nao, a teenager in Japan who is writing about her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun, in a book made by putting blank pages inside an edition of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Nao spent a good part of her childhood in Sunnydale, California, and is being bullied by her schoolmates in Japan.

It’s also a story about Ruth, a writer living on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia, who is struggling over a memoir about her mother and finds Nao’s diary and some other items inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes up on the beach.

Woven into all this are the Japanese tsunami of 2011, World War II, the bursting of the dot com bubble, an ill-behaved cat, life in a very small town, life in modern Japan, and Zen Buddhism.

Although it’s a book with a lot of dark places in it, it is not a sad book. I think that’s probably the Zen influence. Bad things happen, but that’s part of life. But the fact that one feels cheered by having read it does not mean it’s not a complex book. After all, any story that turns on quantum mechanics and Zen Buddhism is obviously going to be more than a simple tale of two lives.

I don’t want to tell you any more than that, because it’s the kind of book in which spoilers really will affect your pleasure. I will say it’s beautifully written. Nao’s voice is definitely that of a teenager; Ruth’s is that of a mature woman. They don’t sound at all alike, but both resonate.

By the way, if you’re wondering how to interpret “time being” in the title: both ways are right.

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