As contemporary as a Japanese teenager’s slang but as ageless as a Zen koan, Ruth Ozeki’s new novel combines great storytelling with a probing investigation into the purpose of existence. From the first page of “A Tale for the Time Being,” Ozeki plunges us into a tantalizing narration that brandishes mysteries to be solved and ideas to be explored.
“Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” writes a funny, unhappy 16-year-old girl. “A time being is someone who lives in time.” But Nao plans “to drop out of time. . . . [This] happens to be the diary of my last days on earth.”
We soon learn that an American novelist named Ruth has found Nao’s diary on the beach in a plastic-wrapped Hello Kitty lunchbox that also contains a batch of old letters. Ruth’s husband, Oliver, is excited by the idea that this package floated from Tokyo all the way to where they live, on an island off British Columbia. Perhaps, he thinks, it’s part of the debris flow from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth is more concerned with Nao’s implicit suicide threat.
We learn from the diary that Nao spent her childhood in California, where her father was a computer programmer. When the dot-com bust sent them back to Tokyo, she found herself an outcast in junior high. Her father, jobless and ashamed of his inability to protect Nao from her classmates’ bullying, repeatedly attempted to kill himself. Her mother, the overstressed family breadwinner, haplessly suggested she join an after-school club. “At that moment I knew,” Nao writes. “There was nobody left in my life I could count on to keep me safe. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as naked or alone.”
Ruth understands those feelings of dislocation and loss. She loves Oliver, but she misses the bustling life in New York City that she left to join him on this remote island (its gossipy, small-town atmosphere is nicely rendered by Ozeki). She can’t finish the book she’s been working on for years. So she immerses herself in Nao’s diary and searches obsessively online for clues about the girl’s family and their ultimate fate.
Ozeki masterfully develops the two parallel stories, creating a virtual dialogue between the blocked writer and the diarist, who confides, “I’m reaching forward through time to touch you.” Ruth’s and Nao’s struggles to find meaning in their lives draw on everything from mythology and Japanese history to quantum physics and European culture. There’s also plenty of Japanese pop culture, juicily but scathingly portrayed as exploitative of vulnerable young women and a tool in the enforcement of conformism. In Ozeki’s mystically interconnected world, it’s not “just a crazy coincidence” that Nao chooses to hide her diary inside the covers of a volume of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” “It felt as if me and old Marcel were on the same wavelength,” she decides.
Ozeki’s faultless reproduction of a teen voice gives a pleasingly down-to-earth quality to Nao’s instruction in Zen practice during a summer with her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, an anarchist and feminist turned Buddhist nun. Yet despite the wisdom quietly conveyed in these passages, Nao despairs when she returns to school and is confronted by increasingly vicious bullying. Ruth’s mood darkens, too, and she scapegoats Oliver for her frustrations.
The novel reaches its darkest point in the secret army diary of Jiko’s son, which Ruth finds among his letters in the Hello Kitty lunchbox. It chronicles the agony of a philosophy student forced to become a kamikaze pilot during World War II, but it also sparks an extended climax that magically gives us hope. Some readers may balk at Ozeki’s violation of realistic conventions, but the dream journey she depicts is a movingly appropriate resolution to a narrative shimmering with the conviction that art and faith lead us to truths beyond the reach of reason alone.
Ozeki’s profound affection for her characters, which warmed her earlier novels, “My Year of Meats” and “All Over Creation,” makes “A Tale for the Time Being” as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually provocative. She finishes off her dazzling tapestry of metaphor and meaning with a short, tender letter from Ruth to Nao. This erudite author knows that in the end, the most important truths are simple.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940,” which will be reissued in May.
A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING
By Ruth Ozeki
Viking. 422 pp. $28.95