A Tale for the Time Being
A Novel by Ruth Ozeki
2013 / 432 Pages
Ruth Ozeki’s third novel A Tale for the Time Being, is a meta-fictional work that features an alternate version of the author as one of the story’s two main protagonists. When Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on the beach near her home it sets her off on the path of an amazing adventure. Inside the box are several items, the most revelatory of which is the diary of a suicidal sixteen-year-old Japanese girl named Nao. Desperate to unlock the truth and determine what became of the girl, Ruth begins reading.
The novel starts out with this rather straight-forward idea, but somewhere along the way it begins to transform into a fascinating piece about writer’s block and the constant push and pull relationship that exists between an author and their readership. Oh, and it also features a surprising amount of dog balls and cat ass. We’ve sprinkled some quotes throughout this review for your … enjoyment? Look, there’s one now.
He gave me a quick sideways glance then turned his back and started doing that thing that cats do, winding himself through my legs, arching his spine and sticking his tail straight up in the air while extending his front paws, not toward me but away from me, offering me his butt to scratch as well as a nice view of his puckered asshole and his giant furry white balls.
It’s unclear why Ozeki is so fixated on the private parts of our beloved pets, but what is crystal clear is her take on that aforementioned relationship between the author and the reader. The fictional Ruth finds a young girl’s diary that was written years ago and just now washed up on shore. She is the reader. Yet at the same time we’re reading about the fictional Ozeki reading the diary years after the real Ozeki finished writing the novel that we’re physically holding in our hands. We’re the reader as well. What about the author? First, let’s partake in more animal goodness.
The tiny cat with the giant balls flicked his tail and led us up the walkway, and just then I heard the sound of sandals slapping against stone, and Muji came running out to meet us.
Nao is the author of the diary in question and the fictional Ruth is the author of the pieces explaining her reading of the diary, but both voices were clearly authored by the real life Ruth Ozeki. Complements to the author because although that seems like a fairly obvious statement to make, the richness of the diary and the vividness of the fictional Ruth as a character serve to blur the lines of reality so much that the suspension of belief doesn’t even come into question. Her characters shine with a genuineness that’s rarely found in today’s literature. However, there are dog balls to contend with.
He knows I’m here but he doesn’t look at me. A dirty white dog is licking its balls across the street. An old farmer woman with a blue-and-white tenugui on her head is bicycling by. Nobody sees me. Maybe I’m invisible.
Ozeki clearly wants to challenge the reader. How many times have you found yourself talking about a book with someone and saying “Oh, that was a great book, but that ending let a lot to be desired.” Ozeki wants to open your eyes to the possibility of multiple endings. Scratch that. Make that limitless possibilities instead. Infinite starting, middle, and ending points, all forever changing based on the minutest alterations along the way. Oh, and in case you ever lose your place in this fascinating discussion…
So now where were we? Oh, right. I was sitting on the bench at the bus stop, waiting for the bus to take me to the temple so I could watch my old Jiko die, and there was an old guy in a jogging suit sweeping up the petals from the sidewalk, and a dirty white dog licking its balls, and the stationmaster was opening the doors to the station.
And so we have this push and pull, this ebb and flow if you will, that is represented by the ocean and the tsunami that devastated Japan and most likely led to the diary washing up on the beach near the fictional Ruth’s house in the first place. We have a young suicidal girl. Through her writing we learn about her horrible family life and her ancient, yet fascinating grandmother. We learn of the fictional Ruth, an author living on a remote island with her auto-didactic husband. A couple who strangely enough own a cat…
Could Pesto be his own observer? Interesting question. He used to like to raise his leg and study his asshole. It didn’t seem like this observation caused him to split into multiple cats with multiple assholes.
Try as you might A Tale for the Time Being defies definition. For some it will be a touching, straight-forward tale of friendship between two women who bond with one another without ever meeting. For others it will be a metaphysical journey with deeply spiritual implications on par with television’s Lost (if you know the show, think about the compass. This novel has a compass moment!). Also, like Lost it features fruit, guess what type of fruit?
“They’re much maligned,” he said. “In Elizabethan times, the English used to call them open-arse fruit. The French called them cul de chien, or dog’s asshole. Shakespeare used them as a metaphor for prostitution and anal intercourse. Where’s your copy of Romeo and Juliet?”
Regardless of what you choose to focus in on or what aspects of the story most appeal to you, there’s no denying that Ozeki has crafted a thought-provoking, deeply affecting novel. One that’s just as rich in descriptions of animal privates as it is in story.