Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being”

I’m not entirely sold on the framework of this novel, which has a novelist named “Ruth” stumbling across the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese-American girl, but at least it earns its place on account of the surprising, late-game introduction of quantum mechanics; that is, an outside observer is necessary. Or as Derrida might have put it, because a reader cannot help but put their own interpretation on what they read, the reader often becomes, to some extent, the writer. I appreciate that; I only wish that the Ruth sections more organically connected to or reflected the deeper meanings present in Nao’s narrative. It’s not until the very end, when Ruth encounters a form of “reader’s block” that the two worlds really connect.

On the whole, though, the book can be reduced to one single thought: life is nothing but a connection of moments (6,400,099,980), and all it takes is a shift in a single one of them in order to create an entirely different universe. This doesn’t excuse the bullying that Nao or her grandfather received (and, to a certain extent, the passive dismissal of her father’s ethical concerns), but it does suggest that there might be healthier responses than suicide. Or, as Kimmy Schmidt once put it–and I’m paraphrasing–if you can get through the next second, then you can get through the second after that, too, and the next, and before long, you’re through a minute, an hour, a day, a week, and a year. You just need to have a purpose for holding on, and that’s what Nao is in search of when she begins writing her diary between the spine of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It’s why, perhaps, she’s able to cast off her book at the end of the book, for Ruth to find: she no longer needs to fixate on the past, because she’s found it.

Though A Tale for the Time Being doesn’t outright say any of this, some of its parallels and metaphors hint very strongly at it. To begin with, there’s the question of how Nao’s diary washed up on the shore of a British Columbian island to begin with; Ruth’s husband posits that it was caught in a gyre of trash floating Limbo-like around the ocean until that one moment at which–perhaps dislodged by the ripple of a butterfly wing elsewhere, or more accurately, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011–it was deemed ready to move on to the person who would be most receptive to reading it. But there’s also the existence of the diary itself, which although it purports to be chronicling the last days of a suicide, is actually doing the exact opposite by preserving her thoughts, her essence, in what the book describes as a Scheherazade-like delaying of death (i.e., immortality).

Why do we spend so much time trying to find the purpose of life? Life is, by definition, that purpose. It is only when there is nothing left to say that the book comes to a close.

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