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A Tale for the Time Being

May 6, 2013

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?

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2013 7:39 am

    I am sad now. I liked ALL the parts (although yes, I agree, the parts about Shroedinger’s cat and all that did lag a bit), even though this sort of thing is not usually my cup of tea. I actually thought Ozeki did that on purpose – slowed the novel down and speeded it up – as another commentary about time and its uses and its foibles.

    But that’s okay! Not everyone likes the same things, and perhaps your readers would like it better if they skipped. (I read ALL battle scenes like that. War and Peace’s epic battle was just a fist-fight for me.) (Also, if I had met and disliked the author, I would have had a lot less patience for the book, I bet.) But didn’t you like Nao? Wasn’t she lovely? And Jiko? My heart was a mess by the end.

    • May 7, 2013 9:24 am

      I did like Nao. I tried to say that, but didn’t provide a lot of quotations to show why. And Jiko, even harder to find anything to show what she was like. The part where she lets Nao say something even though, as I vaguely recollect, it’s not exactly true but Nao needed to say it? That was lovely.
      When I met the author I had a serious case of hero-worship for her.

      • May 8, 2013 8:36 pm

        Ooo, oo, was it the bit where she made Nao say that she was angry? Because I loved that part too if so. Or if not, then your part that you are remembering vaguely was probably also awesome.

  2. May 6, 2013 8:31 am

    Isn’t that how many people read Moby Dick? Skipping the parts about whaling, parts of whales, whaling craft, whaling instruments, how to cut up a whale, how to boil whale blubber, whaling, whaling, whaling.

    • May 7, 2013 9:25 am

      Yes. As you may recollect, Moby Dick is the remaining great work of literature that I haven’t read. Eleanor is urging me to read it. I think I might be about ready.

  3. May 6, 2013 12:55 pm

    Too bad the book was a bit disappointing. And it has such a potentially interesting premise too!

    • May 7, 2013 9:26 am

      I didn’t exactly find it disappointing, just too padded. Take out the padding, and the interesting premise could fulfill more of its promise.

  4. May 6, 2013 3:17 pm

    Quantum physics as a metaphor? I have a feeling this would be beyond me.

    • May 7, 2013 9:28 am

      Well, I didn’t want to be too mean about this, but the ideas about quantum physics are simplified, and like all really complicated ideas, they can’t be simplified and retain what is most interesting.

  5. May 6, 2013 4:06 pm

    I think this one’s for me, the way it’s written sounds very similar but different enough to a book I read last year where the character was presenting the author’s work. I really like that usage of the author, it’s fresh enough to work, though it’s definitely something that doesn’t work for everyone and can seem a bit odd, pretentious perhaps. If I read Jane Eyre again I’d read it like that – leave out the chunk on the extra family and carry on afterwards.

    • May 7, 2013 9:29 am

      And by the “extra family” you mean St. John Rivers’? That’s funny, because that’s related to one of the jokes in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair.

  6. May 8, 2013 11:49 am

    Hehe this review was so entertaining. I’ve been on the fence about this one, sure that I should want to read it but not exactly convinced I’d like it no matter how many people I trust seemed to enjoy it. And your analysis has reallyy convinced me this is one to get from the library, if at all, so I can do what you say and skim to the best bits (the journal sounded like the most interesting bit to me). I am unfortunately very sensitive to the whole ‘the internet is X’ sentiment (usually sad and lonely, or cutting us off from humanity) when it excludes how other things can be eaxctly the same. Yes, what about the sad remaindered novels – well said 🙂

    • May 9, 2013 9:56 am

      We could start a whole series of “there’s nothing sadder than.” How about when you’re in a group, and you finally work up the courage to say something, and you start, but then someone who has been talking says something else and no one ever gets back to what you might have wanted to say?

  7. May 10, 2013 11:09 am

    Good one and how about when you got to a party specifically to see someone and spend the evening with strangers instead?

  8. May 10, 2013 11:40 am

    Good one. And how about when you go to a big box store after 9 pm and there are people with overtired toddlers in there, and they’re yelling at them for misbehaving?

  9. May 14, 2013 4:09 pm

    Let’s make this list and turn it into a blog post. Depending on how the list develops, I can see writing about it in relation to Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts or Nemerov’s The Vacuum or a list of tearjerker movies.

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