A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

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3 thoughts on “A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

  1. Joan Kerr says:

    I’m with you in feeling I would have been happy with the story of Nao alone. For me the incorporation of Ruth (a character it seems with many factual resemblances to Ozeki herself)
    brought a rather heavy-handed overlay of big themes. I’ve read that Ozeki incorporated the Ruth story because she felt that fiction struggled to deal with the dreadful reality of the post-earthquake, post-tsunami world. I can still imagine a way in which a Japan-based story could have done that. And I have to say I found Ruth’s husband Oliver a strangely wooden character, a kind of mouthpiece for those big themes.

  2. kamo says:

    I’ll chip in as another voice claiming this would have been a far better book without the Ruth sections. In many ways they just felt like a school student’s study guide – “Here’s the story, now here’s how you should interpret it”. Patronizing, leaden, and unnecessary, which was a shame as I genuinely thought the Nao sections were fantastic.

    I must confess that I hadn’t made the Murakami connection at all, which is slightly embarrassing as it’s so obvious when you point it out. I guess I’ve become so inured to every Japanese author being compared to him based solely on the basis of their nationality, regardless of style or content, that the fact Ozeki wasn’t blurbed like that made me miss it completely.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I’m a terrible person for not seeing this comment earlier – sorry!

      Re: the whole Murakami thing. My intense deslike for what he’s done to the globalisation of Japanese literature (and fiction about Japan) may have just made me hyper-sensitive to these things.

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