Ruth Ozeki's third novel, "A Tale for the Time Being," begins with writerly disappointment. Well, it also begins with a teenage girl in a fetish café texting her great-grandmother, a feminist-anarchist Buddhist nun who purports to be 104 years old. Maybe I'm burying the lead. But frustrated expression, while dull in comparison, is the backbone of Ozeki's novel.
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The teenage girl in the Japanese café who narrates the story is named Nao, and she is struggling to record the details of her great-grandmother's life. Our other narrator is Ruth, a novelist living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, straining to finish her memoir — a project conceived to make up for her failure to finish a novel. Upon finding Nao's diary washed up on the beach near their home, Ruth and her husband speculate that this is drift from the 2011 tsunami. The diary is written in purple pen, in a book made to look like a leather-bound copy of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." With a Proust reference in the first 20 pages, this book doesn't wear its obsession with time lightly.
Nao finds the life of her great-grandmother much more interesting than her own, but her narrative intercedes anyway. Her father is so depressed about losing his job that he becomes suicidal, drowning in gambling debt and jumping in front of trains. Her mother is unsympathetic and has adopted a hard, feisty attitude. And poor Nao: After growing up in California, she doesn't fit in with her Tokyo classmates. She drops out of school to escape daily beatings and humiliations.
Ruth finds Nao's prose as maddening as it is compelling. "No writer, even the most proficient, could re-enact in words the flow of a life lived, and Nao was hardly that skillful," Ruth admits. This last part is certainly true. Ozeki stays faithful to the wide-eyed obnoxiousness that all 16-year-olds have. "OMG" sits side by side with fun Japanese vocabulary like otaki and hentai, slang for nerd and manga porn. To her credit, Ozeki's grasp of the current teen lexicon is above average, but it's a difficult language to master completely. A 16-year-old's worldview, however informed by tragedy and an interesting familial background, can be annoyingly blunt.
The tone sometimes works. Childishness makes any subtlety in Nao's voice a welcome change. For example, when Nao is describing her father walking her to school, she says:
After the temple, Dad would walk me to school and we'd talk about stuff. I don't remember exactly what, and it didn't matter. The important thing was that we were being polite and not saying all the things that were making us unhappy, which was the only way we knew how to love each other.
An echo of this mature moment comes back later to punch you in the gut. Nao saves her father in the middle of one of his suicide attempts. In the aftermath, she writes him two notes, one of which says, "If you're going to do something, please do it properly." She explains: "Sometimes you have to say what's on your mind."
Nao is obsessed with death, mainly by suicide. She reads word problems about speed and distance for her math homework, and she thinks about the damage a train would do to a body upon impact. In the days after Sept. 11, she is understandably haunted by the image of a falling man. And, as if two suicidal family members weren't enough, Nao's grandfather was a kamikaze pilot; we get to read his diary as well. "The Japanese take funerals and memorials very seriously," Ruth says late in the novel. This comes as no surprise.
Ozeki's prose takes you swiftly through the story, but its lightness means you're just flirting with large topics. Consider: Ruth's husband is interested in widening gyres and the genus of local crows. In one chapter, Nao briefly explains the art of origami (the secret is thin paper, if you were wondering). There are also footnotes explaining Tokyo fashion trends and appendices on Zen Buddhism. One appendix describes a spiritual experiment that calls for snapping your fingers continuously, to experience "an intimate awareness" of what you've done with your time. And don't forget the ancient Emma Goldman acolyte, texting her granddaughter about enlightenment. At times, the reader feels the strain of both too many digressions and not enough detail.
But, as Nao says, it doesn't matter. At one point, Ruth says in defiance of her husband's evocation of quantum physics, "I don't care about other worlds. I care about this one." Ultimately the reader feels this way too. The novel's emotional intelligence outweighs its surface pleasures.
Jen Vafidis is a New York-based writer.
"A Tale for the Time Being"
By Ruth Ozeki, Viking, 422 pages, $28.95