A Tale for the Time Being
Because I liked My Year of Meats and All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki, I picked up her newest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, as soon as it came out.
I’ve actually met Ruth; when she was on campus at Otterbein in the fall of 2002, I signed up to bring my classes studying “Literature and Society” to meet the author of the common book; we had asked all the first-year students to read My Year of Meats the summer before they came to college. My two classes of 18 were combined with the class of another instructor, so there must have been about 50 people in the room. The author talked a little about writing the novel and answered questions. I thought she was dismissive of me and my questions because of the way I make jokes when I’m nervous, or maybe in the way that more slender people often were in the years right before my knee replacement, but it could just as well have been that she was an introvert confronted with meeting about a thousand people in two days.
So when she makes herself a character in this new novel–Ruth, who lives with Oliver and a cat on an island called Desolation Sound off the coast of British Columbia–I didn’t identify with the character, despite the fact that “they liked books, all books, but especially old ones, and their house was overflowing with them.” The part I like is the book she is reading, a diary written in purple ink by a schoolgirl in Japan on blank pages that have been inserted into an old cover of Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. The girl, whose name is Nau (yes, there’s a pun on now) says she intends to write the story of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun, and means for the book to be “like a message in a bottle, cast out onto the ocean of time and space. Totally personal, and real, too, right out of old Jiko’s and Marcel’s prewired world. It’s the opposite of a blog. It’s an antiblog, because it’s meant for only one special person, and that person is you.” Turns out Ruth is the person, though, not the reader.
The attempts to do something interesting with fiction in this novel fall short, for me. In the first place it’s because Ruth is the reader (which is kind of like how the picture book The Polar Express fails for me at the end, when the sister is named and becomes just one person, rather than a character who could be anyone’s sister). In the second place it’s because this is another novel that attempts to use a scientific concept as a metaphor and ends up simplifying it down to the point where it becomes essentially meaningless. A Tale for the Time Being attempts to use quantum physics as a metaphor. There was a lot of this in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, and when Jenny asked me for an example, I couldn’t think of any because I didn’t like the novels, although I remembered that most of them used the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This weekend I was talking to my physicist friend, the one who made me the Necromancy Never Pays magazine cover–he’s the person who coined the term “qubit” that Ruth uses in this novel–and I asked him and Ron if they remembered any of those novels that tried to popularize Heisenberg. They mentioned The Dancing Wu Li Masters, but couldn’t remember any of the novels either. I think this is because they weren’t very good novels. A Tale for the Time Being isn’t a bad novel, but it doesn’t need all the padding that the meditations on time and quantum physics require; I think it could be shorter and better. Even the method that Nao’s dad invents for erasing all mentions of a particular person from cyberspace was already invented in fiction by Christopher Buckley, in Boomsday (May, 2008). Another thing it could lose is the jabs at blogging: “there’s nothing sadder than cyberspace when you’re floating around out there, all alone, talking to yourself.” Oh yeah? How about remaindered novels? How about poems sewn into fascicles and left in a drawer until after the author’s death?
Nao’s story is a sad little one until she spends the summer with her grandmother, when she learns to see more of the world, and hear it, too: “When you’re beating a drum, you can hear when the BOOM comes the teeniest bit too late or the teeniest bit too early, because your whole attention is focused on the razor edge between silence and noise.” By the end of the novel, she’s grown up enough to be able to talk to her father, to see and accept some of what he has been wanting to give her, and to listen when he tells her about why he lost his job developing video games, because “killing people should not be so much fun.”
Nao’s story is an absorbing one, even wrapped as it is in the layers of what it means to be a reader and a writer and try to live in the present. You, my readers, might want to try reading this novel like I used to read my parents’ James Michener novels when there was nothing else around the house—keep skipping through to the next good section and don’t worry about missing the parts in between. Are there other authors you’d recommend we read like that?