Rating:A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. Penguin Books (2013), 432 pages.
Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being was a finalist for the 2013 Booker prize. It has been praised in over thirty reviews from major newspapers and magazines as “masterful,” “exquisite,” “dazzling,” “harrowing,” etc. Readers who regularly scan the blurbs in the front pages of a paperback know not to take this sort of adulation seriously though. Lavishly extravagant adjectives have become so de rigueur in publishing that they are essentially meaningless.
Sometimes, however, in combination with other factors, I start to believe that maybe, this time, it’s true. Reviews and back copy for A Tale for the Time Being refer to a Japanese teenager, Proust, quantum mechanics, a Zen Buddhist nun, a WWII kamikaze pilot, and a Canadian writer and her environmentalist husband. This, while promising, certainly struck me as an ambitious plan but a writer of great talent, if she were able to wrangle all of this into a cohesive story, may have written an amazing novel worthy of all the superlatives being heaped upon it.
The book also had the good fortune to be paired with a clever designer (congrats to Jim Tierney for the cover) who managed to include all four of the novel’s narratives in a way that is intriguing and evocative; hinting at the content without being too literal.
And finally, there were the opening pages, written in the voice of Naoko, a teenage girl who has grown up in California but has recently (unhappily) returned to her native Japan with her parents.
I have tucked my shoulder-length hair behind my right ear, which is pierced with five holes, but now I’m letting it fall modestly across my face again because the otaku salaryman who’s sitting at the table next to me is staring, and it’s creeping me out even though I find it amusing, too. I’m wearing my junior high school uniform and I can tell by the way he’s looking at my body that he’s got a major schoolgirl fetish, and if that’s the case, then how come he’s hanging out in a French maid cafe? I mean, what a dope!
But you can never tell. Everything changes, and anything is possible, so maybe I’ll change my mind about him, too. maybe in the next few minutes, he will lean awkwardly in my direction and say something surprisingly beautiful to me, and I will be overcome with a fondness for him in spite of his greasy hair and bad complexion, and I’ll actually condescend to converse with him a little bit, and eventually he will invite me to go shopping, and if he can convince me that he’s madly in love with me, I’ll go to a department store with him and let him buy me a cute cardigan sweater or a keitai or handbag, even thought he obviously doesn’t have a lot of money. Then after, maybe we’ll got to a club and drink some cocktails, and zip into a love hotel with a big Jacuzzi, and after we bathe, just as I begin to feel comfortable with him, suddenly his true inner nature will emerge, and he’ll tie me up and put the plastic shopping bag from my new cardigan over my head and rape me, and hours later the police will find my lifeless naked body bent at odd angles on the floor, next to the big round zebra-skin bed.
Or maybe he will just ask me to strangle him a little with my panties while he gets off on their beautiful aroma.
And this is what finally sold me—Naoko’s gift for observing detail and a flair for teenage drama with just the right amount of crazy mixed in. This, I said to myself, is a girl I will gladly follow for the next four hundred pages.
But then… disappointment.
You weren’t expecting a “but”? You feel led astray, you say? Betrayed by my glowing first paragraphs? Deceived by the promise of great things to come? I feel your pain dear reader. For this is just the situation I found myself in as I settled into bed with the “brilliant” novel that was going to be my new best friend for the week only to discover that it is, in fact, a catastrophe. Such an utter and total catastrophe I hardly know where to begin.
A short list of the many, many problems includes: annoying and unnecessary footnotes, dropped plot-lines, a Zen nun who texts on a smartphone (in 1999?!) ponderous lectures masquerading as dialogue, two pages on how to meditate that have nothing to do with anything (except the author’s desire to endlessly impart profound lessons to her readers), a Japanese man who speaks English in a stilted second-language kind of way on some pages and is perfectly fluent on others, a missing cat named “Schrodinger” who may be alive or dead and who ends up in a box (which I may have appreciated if Ozeki could have just left it at that—trusting that her readers are familiar enough with the real Schrodinger’s cat to get the reference. But sadly, predictably, she couldn’t resist instructing us in quantum physics and the Schrodinger’s thought-experiment thus killing her mildly charming idea of putting her character’s real cat in a box), and finally, the use of a long tiresome dream to explain things that couldn’t be otherwise explained because they didn’t belong in the book in the first place.
I’m not even going to bother explaining the various narratives and how they are all meant to fit together because they don’t. The Canadian couple exists only to pontificate about environmental destruction and to be the writers of the annoying footnotes. The Zen nun’s purpose is mostly just to school the reader on Buddhism. The kamikaze pilot had potential, but his story was lost in all the mystical, magical ridiculousness of words and pieces of paper appearing and disappearing.
I wish I could say this seems to be a novel with a few too many ideas that unfortunately just got away from the author. But I can’t. A Tale for the Time Being reads like another unfortunate story destroyed by self-importance run amok. Because Ozeki did have a great story to tell—that of the compelling, original, delightful Naoko. If I had been Ozeki’s editor (and if ever a book needed an editor it is this one) I would have told her to write the entire thing as a YA novel, in the voice of Naoko, and be satisfied with that. I would probably have given it four stars.