Imagine that, for the time being, you’re in a world of your own, in a singular universe of time, then abruptly thrust into a parallel reality, one that could be in the past, present, or future. You’re not sure if your senses are playing tricks on you or if you are whom you think you are; if you’re where you’re supposed to be. All of this culminating into a larger, more encompassing self-realization than you have ever dreamed. How did this happen? Was it a singular event that pushed you into this array of many worlds, or has this web of dimension existed all along, exclusive of your knowledge?
I found myself asking these very same questions as I turned the final page of the novel, acutely aware that I was finished reading the story and, at the same time, maybe in a parallel world, the story continued and I was reading further than the 422 pages that were staring back at me. What began as a quaint story of a washed-up bag of items that a novelist stumbled upon on the beach, ended in a lesson on life, reality, and the time wave that was bent between the two.
The novel flips between the first-person diary narrative of Nao Yasutani, and the third-person account of novelist Ruth. The entanglement of these two narrators is curious: one is a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl wrestling with family, school bullies, and a historical past; the other is a writer living on a tucked-away island in Canada, searching for the break in her writer’s block. Between these two accounts, there were moments of zazen interspersed with moments of disarray. Like a cat that navigates circle eights between its owner’s legs, so the novel takes a similar turn, weaving in and out of stories within stories, realizations and epiphanies, overlapping the lives of two protagonists that eventually come full circle.
A Tale for the Time Being is chock full of superpowers, kind of like the ones you imagine having as a child or the ones you dream you have while you’re almighty and powerful during your adult slumber. The border becomes hazy once you realize the blurred lines between time and space, reader and writer, character on paper and character in the tangible world. The novel is constructed from memories, those of Nao’s past and present, as well as Ruth’s present and future. Realizations begin to overlap for Ruth as she awakens to the essence of time; what exactly a time being is and what it means to be cognizant of the time being.
Multiplicity is apparent in the form of numerous juicy tangents which present themselves. The novel has a sweet sort of love affair with old Japan and modern America, touching upon suicide, memories, and the impersonal vastness of technology.
Like the universe, this novel is constantly changing and nothing stays the same. I half expected to flip to the end of the book and see blank pages, or more pages, or the last page with words running off it. Should I be surprised that while reading about the Jungle Crow which silently observed Ruth in her daily activities, I noticed several black crows seemed to be lingering in my own yard; or that I received a red cloth-covered book in the mail from a distant relative similar in fashion to the red cloth-covered diary of Nao’s that washed ashore at Ruth’s feet? As Ruth’s hunger for answers within Nao’s story grew, so did the written text itself—it morphed; receded and multiplied, unbelievable to the reader, seemingly like magic. In true quantum fashion, this novel is a welcome time warp of what it truly means to exist for the time being.
Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her first two novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), have been translated into 11 languages and published in 14 countries. Her most recent work, A Tale for the Time-Being (2013), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and will be published in over thirty countries. Ruth’s documentary and dramatic independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and at colleges and universities across the country. A longtime Buddhist practitioner, Ruth ordained in 2010 and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia and New York City. (www.ruthozeki.com).