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A Message Carefully Wrapped and Sealed in a Ziploc Bag

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is an enormous step forward from her prior novels, taking on nothing less than the meaning of time itself.

There’s something to be said for creativity’s slow burn. Writers as disparate as Jeffrey Eugenides, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, and now Ruth Ozeki, write slowly, publishing on the decade’s turn.

Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is an enormous step forward from her prior novels, taking on nothing less than time’s meaning. The title is a play on words, borrowing from the Zen: we are all time beings, that is, beings existing in time. Ruth, an avatar of the author, learns this after making a surprising discovery while walking the remote Canadian island shoreline where she lives.

A glint catches her eye: a carefully wrapped and sealed Ziploc bag. She carries the barnacle-encrusted package home, where her husband Oliver opens it. A packet of letters, written in French, an old watch, its face numbered in Japanese. A Hello Kitty Lunchbox. Inside the lunchbox is a copy of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time)—but not quite: Ruth opens the book to find a teenaged girl’s handwriting, the purple ink in English, dotted here and there with Japanese Kanji.

While all manner of oddities wash up on their shores, neither has ever found a diary. Could this be the first wave of tsunami detritus?

Ruth begins reading and is pulled into 15-year-old Naoko Yasutani’s world. Nao (read: “now”) is a teenager living in Tokyo with her mentally unstable father, Haruki, and her mother, Tomoko. Bullied in school, Nao has dropped out. She plans to document her great-grandmother Jiko’s life before taking her own.

Nao’s diary, addressed to “you”, the reader who finds it, is less about Jiko than herself. By turns charmingly naïve and painfully mature, Nao explains how she ends up truant, writing in a French Maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town.

The Yasutani family, she explains, was once happy. When Nao was very young, the family moved to Sunnyvale, California, where Haruki worked as a computer programmer. Nao thrived in school. She adored her cool dad, who bicycled to work wearing a messenger bag.

Then, inexplicably, the bottom dropped out. The family was forced to return to Tokyo, to a tiny apartment in a cramped warren of concrete buildings. Nao’s childish Japanese wasn’t up to school, or her cruel classmates, who landed on her like carrion. Haruki rapidly became a hikikomori, a recluse, unemployed and suicidal. Tomoko soon found a job working long hours, making it easy for Nao to hide her classmates’ worsening abuses. Haruki began making serious suicide attempts.

Only Jiko’s presence countered these horrors. At 104 years old, “Old Jiko” is a Buddhist nun of some renown. After losing her son, known as Haruki #1, during World War II—he was a Kamikaze pilot—Jiko became a feminist writer and nun. A stabilizing force in Nao’s life, Jiko lives in a temple in Miyagi prefecture, precisely where the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami will hit hardest. In order to remain in contact with her beloved great-granddaughter, she has acquired a computer and learned to email.

Years later, on the other side of the world, Ruth reads the diary, first alone in her study, then aloud at night to Oliver. Her own writing, a tangled memoir of her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, has stalled. Reading the diary rapidly overtakes any fantasies she has of reviving her memoir.

Ruth paces herself lest she race to the diary’s conclusion. She scours the internet desperately for information about the Yasutanis. Despite Jiko’s fame, little is available. A brief, tantalizing lead vanishes when a storm cuts the power to the island; days later, when electricity is restored, the link is gone. Yet Jiko and later Haruki will come to Ruth in vividly intense dreams.

“Meta” writing, the use of author as narrator, a postmodernist trick, can be an immensely distracting irritant. Happily, this is untrue of A Tale for the Time Being. The reader ceases to consider Ruths, Olivers, the cat Pesto, or the crowd of nosy islanders who literally barge into the couple’s kitchen. What and who is “real” ceases to matter; all that matters is what Nao has to tell us next.

Expect, like Ruth, to be swept irresistibly into the wave of Nao’s story. Unlike Ruth, don’t expect to pace yourself. I read A Tale for the Time Being in great greedy gluttonous gulps. You will, too.

Ozeki skillfully weaves quantum mechanics with Buddhist scripture; Jiko’s observations about time’s meaninglessness fit nicely with discussions of Schrödinger’s Cat and Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Theory. For the scientifically inclined, there are appendices explicating these theories at the novel’s close. For the lunkheads amongst us, there are plenty of footnotes to help with the scientific concepts and generally ease the more technical aspects of the ride.

A side note: Hugh Everett’s son, Mark, is none other than A Man Called E. Mark Everett wrote a devastating memoir titled Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Well worth your reading time and dollar.

As the end of Nao’s diary draws near, Ruth notices it changing. The purple ink runs into the very last page, then draws back, then goes to the final page once more. Outside it is winter, the weather bleak, full of wet, howling storms that cut power for days, leaving Ruth in a twilit netherworld. Yet eventually, of course, the purple ink resolves itself.

A Tale for the Time Being concludes, as noted above, with numerous appendices. It’s a departure from conventional narrative, and although as readers we might hope for something more conclusive, we accept what we’re given as—dare I say it in a world of many worlds?—inevitable.

RATING 8 / 10