‘Together, We’ll Make Magic’

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Canongate, 400pp, £7.99, ISBN 9780857867971

reviewed by Alexis Forss

What are the true edges, the outer limits, of a book? Of this particular book, with its ‘fully interactive paperback jacket’ (‘download the free Blippar app...’), ‘also available in a beautiful limited-edition hardback, an e-book or audio-digital download’? Where does it start, where does it begin? This is the kind of question to send us scurrying for the succour of literalism, but that will not do for this book, which is about how these questions are more mysterious to us now than they were for the Rabbis for whom the written Torah was a purely mystical concept.

I first noticed the footnotes to the epigraph. Who is the ‘I’ that admits to having translated the Japanese ‘any ordinary person’ as ‘any Dick or Jane’? I return to the previous page, to the dedication: ‘For Masako, for now and forever’. But what is the relationship between the two Ruths, the character and the author: both Canadian-American novelists of Japanese descent who lost their mothers, both named Masako? Before we’ve reached the tenth footnote (seven pages in) we are referred to an appendix, one of six. Which of the Ruths wrote these – the same one that wrote the acknowledgements and compiled the bibliography? Which Ruth has the last say? Does either? A novel that concerns itself with the question of last words offers itself as just such an enigma. ‘But no matter what nonsense I write,’ one character begs, ‘please know that those are not my last words. There are other words and other worlds.’

Japanese teenager Nao sits in Fifi’s Lonely Apron, a French-themed café in Tokyo, staring at the blank pages of her notebook. She begins to write: ‘It’s an antiblog,’ she tells us, ‘ because it’s meant for only one special person, and that person is you.’ We read her doing this in the words she writes in that notebook, and so does Ruth, who finds the book in a package that washes up on the shore near her home in British Columbia. We read Ruth reading Nao as she sets out to write the story of Jiko, her great-grandmother. We also read the wartime letters and diary of her great-uncle Haruki, and we read Nao and Ruth reading them and Ruth reading Nao reading her uncle’s words. Crucially, however, Ruth reads Haruki’s true last words before Nao does and through this ends up intervening in the story. This is the mystery that elevates this novel above the mere epistolary, and the resolution of this paradox is an allegory for the paradox of reading itself – that one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.

I will abstain from further attempts to describe the plot of A Tale for the Time Being, but I hope that won’t prevent me from expressing the beauty and the worth of this remarkable and moving novel by Ruth Ozeki. To do so I find myself drawing on the critical terminology of science fiction.

If you have already read the novel or are aware of its already considerable reputation you may balk at this apparent miscegenation, or perhaps you might consider ‘the critical terminology of science fiction’ an oxymoronic concept. I recall seminars I attended as an undergraduate in which a considerable portion of the class resisted the notion of science fiction as ‘serious’ literature and stubbornly inoculated themselves against the paranoid fantasies of Philip K. Dick and the cyberspace speculations of William Gibson. Strange, I thought, even infra dig, for a group that had only weeks previously bought with deadliest seriousness into the idea that Gregor Samsa had transformed into an ungeheures Ungeziefer. The invocation of Kafka is instructive and worth persevering with if we grant Walter Benjamin’s conception of his nightmares as an exposition of the mythic forms of modernity, and remember that Kafka’s gestures do not have a fixed symbolic meaning for the author from the start. Rather, Kafka removes the traditional supports from human gestures and in this way lets them develop into puzzles. Ozeki is up to something very similar.

A puzzle indeed lies at the centre of Ozeki’s narrative, and I hesitate to call it time travel – at least not in a HG Wells sense. However, the mystery posed by the seeming intersection of Ruth’s timeline with that of Nao (the homonymic punning, I assure you, is lost on none of the present writers) might yield to a trope of Samuel R. Delaney’s: namely, science fiction’s literalisation of language. Consider, Delaney invites us:

There is not sentence I can think of that could theoretically appear in a text of mundane fiction that could not also be worked into some text of science fiction – whereas there are many, many sentence in science fiction that would be hard or impossible to work into a text of mundane fiction. SF discourse gives many sentences clear and literal meanings, sentences that in mundane fiction would be meaningless or at any rate very muzzily metaphorical.

Let us consider seriously for a second the idea that time travel takes place in the novel. Why not? Without giving away the circumstances of the plot, which you must discover for yourself, Ruth literally does come into information before Nao does. How can this happen? Nao’s act of writing has taken place in Ruth’s past, but where the novel gets really interesting is where Ruth loses sight of this. It starts out for her as an experiment of sorts:

It occurred to her that perhaps a clue lay in the pacing. Nao had written her diary in real time, living her days, moment by moment. Perhaps if Ruth paced herself by slowing down and not reading faster than the girl had written, she could more closely replicate Nao’s experience. Of course, the entries were undated ... there were clues: the changing hues of ink, as well as shifts in the density or angle of the writing ... This way she wouldn’t end up with an overly compressed or accelerated sense of the girl’s life and its unfolding.

Ozeki might be tapping into something here: have you ever felt guilt at having read a book too quickly, or taken so long to read a book that the effort unravelled and eventually ended? Has the payload sentence ever hovered in the periphery of your vision and made you fight your eye’s urge to end the suspense? Ruth’s striving towards a temporal concordance with the narrative she has been giving is another way that this novel uses the act of reading as an allegory for itself, and Ozeki situates this allegory within time as a concept and time as history. These entangle as Ruth’s concept of now slackens and Nao’s then becomes ‘a matter of some urgency’ for her: ‘This girl is suicidal. So is her father. The whole diary is a cry for help. So, yes. Urgency.’ Oliver, her husband, tells her to do the maths.

The notebook may be undated, but several times Ruth fails to notice elements in Nao’s narrative that would have served to date the text, to situate it within history – and she misses the big one. And thus, by turning 9/11 into a kind of temporal milestone, a measuring stick by which to judge the distance between Ruth and Nao, Ozeki has made literal our most uncanny metaphysical reactions to it: a Black Swan beating its malevolent wings through the gyre of time itself, ‘a sharp knife slicing through time.’ Does time travel still seem such a ludicrous notion? Why should it? Isn’t Ozeki writing about a world where science fiction has become science fact? Ask William Gibson:

If I had gone into a publisher in New York in 1981 and told them I wanted to write a novel that is set in a world where the climate is out of whack and Mideast terrorists have hijacked airplanes and in response the US has invaded the wrong country — it’s too much. Contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios.

If we take seriously the notion that time travel occurs in this text, that time is traversed, and we think through the paradoxes of this scenario – the paradoxes of ontology, of predestination – then what emerges is an astonishingly apposite allegory of reading. It allows us to conceive of time as a closed system, an unending loop of recurrence and causality. What is a book if not, in Nietzsche’s formulation of time, an eternal play of repetition, one where all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss and corrupt each other again?

As I wrote earlier, Ozeki situates her allegory of reading within time, articulating what has always been true of reading; I also wrote that she locates it within history, and is she not depicting a world that is painfully familiar to us? Informed about our past, worried about our future and all-too-aware that we are in a distinct period of history, do we have time for such questions? Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to fathom the redemptive power of literature to make us recalibrate our relationship with now.

TS Eliot wrote that ‘If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.’ I think Ozeki would disagree with the second part. ‘Together we’ll make magic,’ is Nao’s invitation. Ruth took her up on it, and you should, too.