A Tale for the Time Being

History, Humanity, Hope


Reading Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being [1], now in 2013, I find myself in no doubt that the book is exactly that – a tale for the time being. Indeed, the novel appears to speak to the present, to what we might think of as the metamodern moment. It does this from its opening aperture, by speaking directly to me or to you as its reader(s):

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.
A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.
You wonder about me.
I wonder about you.

Cleverly, Ozeki’s first lines initiate a knowing play of words: ‘the time being’ of the book’s title which at first seems to rely upon an idiomatic locative phrase to foreground the novel’s temporally-specific, yet perhaps transitory, relevance in fact turns out to be a noun phrase with ‘the time being’ acting as a reference to human life and its time bound nature. Such semantic revision is by no means definitive though; Ozeki’s tale isn’t a discourse for the present or for people. Instead, it resonates with the present in an intimate, personal and intensely human way.

This coalescence of history and humanity is, of course, also encapsulated in Nao’s name, which is a homophone of the temporal adverb ‘now’. As Nao herself ruminates, “now always felt especially strange and unreal to me because it was me, at least the sound of it was. Nao was now and had this whole other meaning” (98; original emphasis). She continues:

…in the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then.
Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.
(99; original emphasis)

Both here and in the novel’s opening, Ozeki foregrounds the ephemeral nature of time. There is both an acknowledgement that time is a human construct that allows us to give shape and order to our temporal being, as well as the suggestion that time is unstable, and attempts to inscribe it in language and experience only serve to make it all the more fluid and amorphous. This double-bind is enacted in the linguistic games of the opening which itself shifts the reference of ‘now’ so that it refers to both Nao’s subjective reality in the café in Akiba (the so-called speaker/writer-now) and the reader’s subjective reality (the receiver-now) – and since A Tale for the Time Being will be read by multiple readers, this receiver-now is even more fluctuating [2]. Indeed, the specificity of time in relation to the narratorial act is far from simple: Nao writes of ‘your past, which is also my present’, yet understands that the present moment for the reader is ‘somewhere in my future’. In terms of metamodernism, one can see here a recognition of the present as displaced: To use Vermeulen and van den Akker’s words, a displacement of “the parameters of the present with those of a future presence that is futureless” [3]. Importantly, while Ozeki concedes that our understandings of the present and the future are shifting and kaleidoscopic, this does not mean to say that she abandons them. Rather, throughout the course of A Tale for the Time Being, the future is cast as a place imbued with scepticism and hope simultaneously.

Narratorial voice is one of the techniques that Ozeki uses as a means of temporal investigation. A Tale for the Time Being shifts between the perspectives of two characters: Nao, the vicarious yet naïve first-person voice opening the novel and seemingly directly addressing the reader, and Ruth, whose chapters are written in reflector mode – that is, third person narration but focalised from Ruth’s perspective. Living on an island in British Columbia, Ruth (born to a Japanese mother and Caucasian American father) finds a barnacle-encrusted plastic bag washed up on the beach. Inside, she and her husband Oliver discover a Hello Kitty lunchbox, containing a number of items including a handwritten English diary with occasional Japanese words. In purple scrawl, this is Nao’s diary, relating the troubled adolescence of a 16-year-old Japanese school girl who, having grown up in California where her father was head-hunted as a software developer in Silicon Valley, has returned to Tokyo with her family in somewhat insolvent circumstances after her father lost his job and the “total dreamland called the Dot-Com Bubble” (43) had burst. Readers of A Tale for the Time Being therefore experience Nao’s diary, written in late 2001, first hand, while also gaining a mediating and informed perspective as they find themselves aligned as readers with Ruth, reading the diary in a time approximate to the reader’s own present (2013), as she searches for further information about and verification of Nao and her family’s existence.

As Ruth becomes the embodied reader of Nao’s second-person address, Ozeki uses the writer-reader relationship that Nao and Ruth symbolise to represent the connected- yet disconnectness of the contemporary global world, with both characters questioning their knowledge of the other – whether they’d recognise each other in the street, for instance (299, 385, 402). At one point, Nao hypothetically suggests, “we would smile at each other across time like we were friends, because we are friends by now, aren’t we?” (175). Digital culture is another source of a connected-disconnected divide, with Ruth searching for information about Nao’s father Haruki/Harry from a professor at Stanford University and Nao trying (yet failing) to stay in touch with her Californian best friend Kayla, who writes to her “You seem so far away” and “It’s kind of unreal” (79). Nao also texts her Buddhist grandma Old Jiko, with whom she spent the summer of 2001 at her Zen temple in the mountains of northern Japan. Moreover, Ozeki shows the world to be connected geologically too, since Ruth and Oliver are plagued by the fear that Nao’s Hello Kitty lunchbox was swept across the sea and onto the British Columbian shoreline as a relic from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

While the tsunami haunts Ruth and Oliver’s thoughts, and frequent island storms disrupt their electric power and communication networks, Nao’s narrative is punctuated by two major events both symbolic of the failure of late capitalism: the bust of the internet boom at the close of the twentieth century and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Both financial crisis and momentous historical event stand for Nao as significant mnemonics in her family’s economic and personal fortunes. Nao speaks poignantly of 9/11 as “one of those crazy moments in time that everybody who happened to be alive in the world remembers. You remember it exactly. September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time. It changed everything” (265); she remembers the falling man as a visual “squiggle, and at first you think he’s a piece of lint or dust on the camera lens that got onto the picture by mistake. It’s only when you look closely that you understand. The squiggle is a human. A time being. A life” (168). Yet despite her compassion, 9/11 acts for Nao less as a distressing event in itself but a catalyst for traumas of a more personal nature.

Nao’s father obsesses over 9/11 and is besieged by an unlifting depression. Initially, the reader can only infer that the terror of the event is a trigger of hopelessness, but towards the novel’s close we learn that Haruki was, conversely, reacting to his own inability to reconcile his own conscience. As a software developer in Silicon Valley, Haruki was working on POV interfaces in gaming platforms, but when his company signs a contract with a U.S. military contractor, he struggles in good faith to execute their requests to apply his entertaining game interfaces in designing weapons controllers. It transpires that it is for this reason that he lost his job and for this reason that he feels such remorse over 9/11: the inevitability of subsequent war, and the fact that his software would thus be used in real warfare. In a confession to Nao, he laments:

A generation of young American pilots would use my interfaces to hunt and kill Afghani people and Iraqi people, too. This would be my fault. I felt so sorry for those Arab people and their families, and I knew the American pilots would suffer too. Maybe not right away. At the time, those young boys were carrying out their missions, it would all feel unreal and exciting and fun, because that’s how we designed it to feel. But later on, maybe days or months of even years later, the reality of what they’d done would start to rise up to the surface, and they would be twisted up with pain and anger and take it out on themselves and their families. That also would be my fault. (388)

Against a capitalising drive to earn and to profit, a self-interest that protects and secures the self and its immediate kin, prevails an ethical conscience, an altruism that favours a collective good. This is part of what Christian Moraru emphasises when he considers a defining feature of the present age to be “relationality”, a relation of compassion and understanding, regardless and reverent of difference, between social beings who have an obligation to each other in the world, or as he puts it, “the self and other’s foundational corelationality with respect to one another” [4].

The more Ruth reads of Nao’s diary, the more she too feels a relational pull which manifests itself, despite the fact that Nao’s diary exists in a past-tense to Ruth’s own reality, in an urge to rescue Nao from potential suicide and to confirm her well-being amidst the threat of a possible Tsunami. At one point, she seems to resign her hopes, condemning Nao’s future (or possible future) into obscurity:

Not knowing is hard. In the earthquake and the tsunami, 15,854 people died but thousands more simply vanished, buried alive or sucked back out to sea by the outflow of the wave. Their bodies were never found. Nobody would ever know what happened to them. This was the harsh reality of this world, at least.

Yet despite such bleak uncertainty, Ruth cannot entirely succumb to cynicism and in the novel’s prologue she writes:

You wonder about me. I wonder about you. (403)

It is a couplet featuring syntactic parallelism that echo’s Nao’s opening solicitation. This hope, stranded at the end of Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being, is significant. Such hope in metamodern times, however guarded, however fictional, is important. To reinforce this, Ruth Ozeki casts herself as the character Ruth in search of Nao; adding 165 footnotes (some of which translate Japanese words and/or cultural rituals), 6 appendixes, a bibliography, and acknowledgements that mention Ruth’s partner Oliver to the document. Doing so adds veracity, however artificial. Whether looking for Nao, looking to the future, or looking for now, A Tale for the Time Being is a tale about humanity and the future and, whatever shadows of doubt, about not quite losing hope.


[1] Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale for the Time Being (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2013). All quotations, henceforth referenced with only page numbers, come from this paperback edition.

[2] In using this categorization of ‘now’s, so to speak, I am following a distinction made in Stockwell, Peter. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (London; New York: Routledge, 2002). See page 46.

[3] Vermeulen, Timotheus and van den Akker, Robin. “Notes on Metamodernism”, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2 (2010).

[4] Moraru, Christian. Cosmodernism: American Narrative, Late Globalization, and the New Cultural Imaginary. (Ann Arbor: Univeristy of Michigan Press. 2011). Page 4.

There is one comment

  1. Bruce J. Berger

    Also very important in A Tale for the Time Being is how Ruth’s dreams insert themselves into the past reality of Nao’s world, one of a few instances of magical realism that power this novel. In Nao’s world, her great-uncle’s diary appears mysteriously in a box in the possession of Nao’s great-grandmother. The only explanation for this appearance that the novel accepts is that Ruth placed the diary there herself in a dream. The diary, when translated for Nao (it was written in French) drastically alters the family narrative of Haruki, the great-uncle who died as a kamikaze pilot in World War II. Haruki now may be understood as a hero for what he did not do — kill — as opposed to he supposedly had done. This intervention of the future (2013) into the past (2001) underscores the richness of this novel.

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