A Review of Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis

A Tale for the Time Being. Ruth Ozeki.

New York: Viking, 2013. 422 pp.


Ocean and Internet gyres spin with post-tsunami flotsam. A sad-sack dad crafts paper insect miniatures to stave off suicide. A coterie of Japanese housewives, like one networked, collective organism, self-soothes at the jellyfish tank of a Tokyo aquarium. This is the visual vocabulary of trauma and loss in Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being, winner of the 2014 LA Times Book Prize for Fiction and the 2014 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, shortlisted for the National Book Critics Award and the Man Booker Prize.

There are many wonders here. The basic storyline has British Columbia-based novelist Ruth finding the diary of Japanese teen Nao Yasutani, a diary carried across the ocean, we suspect, by the tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. Has Nao survived the tsunami and earthquake? Has her father, whose mental health struggles the diary chronicles, committed suicide? What is Ruth’s growing stake in this story? Throw in ghosts, a one hundred-and-four-year-old Buddhist nun, and the diary literally rewriting itself before Ruth’s eyes, and we have a novel that sounds a little Murakami-ian—but that’s not quite right. A Tale is full of tumbling energies of invention, sometimes surreal, but it has too little of the disaffection, and none of the dread, that characterizes Murakami’s Nobel-verging oeuvre.

Which is not to suggest A Tale is Murakami lite. Better to say Ozeki has her own marvelously unusual—and assured—visual and emotional register. Better to say A Tale, so suffused with trauma and sadness, is at once compulsively, delightfully readable. Better to say Ozeki is peering into the neighborhood where Murakami has long owned real estate: Major Author-hood.


Boiled down, the bildungsroman is all about managing social difference. Someone comes of age and either fits into society or doesn’t. Whether an aberrant protagonist is ultimately brought back into the social fold or, per Patricia Chu’s formulation of an “Asian American bildungsroman,” not brought back into the fold—forcing a rethinking of the larger social order[1]—we’re imagining how to manage difference one way or another. “Back-into-the-fold” bildung can sort of seem like propaganda; “rethinking-the-social-order” bildung can seem like what Vaman Tyrone X calls “tolerance-oatmeal” (as in, “eat your cultural diversity, it’s good for you”). Maybe the two really aren’t all that different, and either way, the sentimental lure of the coming of age story usually pushes difference-management work far into the realms of subconscious absorption. A Tale takes a different tack, though, and offers a pretty effing clever riff on the bildung form.[2]

Early in Part II of the novel, Nao writes:


Have you ever heard of metal-binding? It’s something everyone in Japan knows about, but nobody ever heard of in Sunnyvale. I know because I asked Kayla, so maybe Americans don’t have it. I never had it either until we moved to Tokyo.

Metal-binding is what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t move, like some gigantically fat evil spirit is sitting on your chest. It’s really scary (124).


Compare this passage to the following passage from Maxine Hong Kingston’s seminal 1975 novel-cum-memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of A Girlhood Among Ghosts (which is, we might recall, per a 2005 Modern Languages Association report, the most widely taught text in modern university history):


Cringes of fear seized her soles as something alive, rumbling, climbed the foot of her bed. It rolled over her and landed bodily on her chest. There it sat. It breathed airlessly, pressing her, sapping her. “Oh, no. A Sitting Ghost,” she thought. She pushed against the creature to lever herself out from underneath it, but it absorbed this energy and got heavier (68-9).


Even if “metal-binding” as a phenomenon tends, culturally speaking, to get around, it’s not much of a leap to suggest A Tale is paying homage to Woman Warrior too. It’s a move that establishes the novel as inheritor of a particular tradition of the ghostly, wherein the ghost is simply a ghost—not a metaphorical stand-in for erased histories in the fashion, say, of Beloved’s Beloved, the ghost of Slavery with a capital S. Or the ghost as psychological projection (see: a whole bunch of Henry James stories). Instead we can group A Tale with such Asian American novels as Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses (1989), Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman (1997), Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (1997), Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Memories of My Ghost Brother (1997), Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000), Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2005), and Shawna Yang Ryan’s Water Ghosts (2009), all books where the supernatural, frequently in the form of a ghost, exists in radical tension with the rational.

What does this have to do with bildungsroman? They’re all wrapped up together, ghosts and coming of age. Metal-binding is just an early taste of the ghostly in A Tale. Nao is subjected to routine forms of abuse at school, culminating in her social “death,” her classmates and teacher performing a Buddhist funeral ceremony for her. Afterwards she’s at once present and absent, a condition she comes to understand as ikisudama, which, in her annotations of Nao’s diary, Ruth helpfully explains to mean “living ghost.” Not long afterwards, an honest-to-goodness ghost as ghost appears when Nao moves to live with her great-grandmother Jiko, the aforementioned one-hundred-and-four-year-old Buddhist nun, for the summer; the ghost, of Haruki #1, Nao’s great-uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot after whom her father is named, appears twice during Nao’s stay at Jiko’s Buddhist temple. Finally there’s Nao’s “ghostliness” across the narrator-reader divide: the tsunami and Ruth’s inability to find information about Nao and her family through internet searching mean we can’t know if Nao is still alive as we read her journal; she may well be “speaking” to us from beyond the grave—and not just metaphorically. As Ruth struggles to make sense of Nao’s story, new text begins appearing in the journal, blank pages mysteriously filling in.

A Tale plots these engagements with the ghostly into something approximating the bildung form. Nao’s is certainly a coming of age story, and Ruth sets out to synchronize the pace of her reading to the pace of Nao’s writing, mapping Nao’s developmental narrative onto her own, embodying and dramatizing the readerly identification so vital to the bildung form. But the novel complicates this process of identification, picturing it as far from smooth or easy for Ruth, marked as much by disbelief and torturous self-doubt (and even growing marital tension) as by empathetic identification. In fact readerly dis/belief becomes a key thematic, much of Ruth’s narrative thread devoted to her struggles with the allure and demands of ghostly knowledge particularly within the largely—but not uniformly—rationalist surround of Vancouver Island.

Ruth’s husband and several of her neighbors, who weigh Nao’s story and work to solve its “mystery” alongside her, frequently to Ruth’s consternation, are scientists (or in her husband Oliver’s case, an eco-artist steeped in the sciences) who consistently bring the languages and methodologies of the sciences to bear. Yet both Oliver and neighbor Muriel, a retired anthropologist, are more than willing to entertain the notion that Nao is actively writing the journal, speaking across time—that the irrational is in fact possible. Knowledge systems are colliding here, but those systems are complex, not necessarily reciprocally constitutive or mutually exclusive, the collisions uneven, sometimes not collisions at all. The novel’s ending, including the mystery pages which conclude Nao’s journal, provides some answers—to the question of Nao and her father’s whereabouts, to the question of why Ruth has been unable to locate them via internet searching—but leaves much unclear. How to make sense of Haruki #1? How to understand Nao’s ability to complete her journal across space and time? This stuff remains unreconciled, perhaps irreconcilable.

The foundations of the bildung form are getting thoroughly wrecked in the process. On the one hand, A Tale constantly foregrounds distance between writer and reader, and the resulting vexed-ness and sometimes failures of readerly identification. On the other hand it dizzyingly collapses that distance in ways a rationalist framework, and dominant Western traditions of reading, cannot abide without recourse to metaphor. I am reaching through time to touch you, Nao writes, and Ruth hears this line echoing in her head. How can we accept a coming of age storyas model when the very boundaries of that story are always fraying and the very prospect of readerly identification comes undone? The ghostly writing in Nao’s journal unravels the accepted bounds of time/space necessary for defining an “age,” hence too a “coming of age”; we lose concrete sense of when/where Nao is writing from and how old she is or was. And the necessary divide between protagonist and reader, the divide that the bildung’s work means to bridge, has disappeared, the banks of each shore running into one another: I am reaching through time to touch you.

Nao’s and Ruth’s stories influence one another, Ruth’s dream seemingly leading to new pages in the journal. And the ghost itself, whether Haruki #1 or Nao, defies our fundamental rationalist notions of life and death, and therefore of time, upon which a coming of age story depends. That is, in what we might call “ghostly time,”[3] our accepted temporal measurements, so thoroughly defined by human lifespans and their developmental milestones, come unmoored. When consensus on the basic terms of possibility disintegrates, so too does much hope of pat reconciliation. A Tale is getting us to heavy, perhaps Buddhist questions[4] about time and being, about subjectivity and development, about what it means to live and die and maybe live on in relation to what it means to write and read.


Here’s novelist and poet Ben Lerner in a September 2014 Believer interview (conducted by enfant terrible Tao Lin):


Many of the left thinkers that really matter to me—that formed a big part of my thinking about politics and art—emphasize how capitalism is a totality, how there’s no escape from it, no outside. We all know what they mean: every relationship can feel saturated by market logic or at best purchased at the price of the immiseration of others. But I’m increasingly on the side of thinkers like David Graeber who are talking back to this notion of totality and emphasizing how there are all kinds of moments in our daily lives that break—or at least could break—from the logic of profit and the modes of domination it entails. Zones of freedom, even if it’s never pure.And I like to think—knowing that it’s an enabling fiction—of those moments as fragments from a world to come, a world where price isn’t the only measure of value.[5]

Lerner’s not just idly theory-wonking. He’s outlining a future course for contemporary fiction, including, naturally, his own work (most recently the 2014 novel 10:04), and while the course isn’t entirely new,[6] Lerner’s putting up some helpful lampposts, or maybe tiki torches. A Tale is acutely interested in this very course, in capitalist “saturation” and the zones of freedom inside and beyond it—and particularly how we get at them via writing and reading. A Tale gives us Ruth and her solitary, transformative translation and annotation of the diary, as well as the space that opens when her British Columbia community “reads” the diary together. It gives us Jiko in her hermetic temple in rural Japan, stepping adroitly into and out of the tides of the World Wide Web. It gives us Nao moving between cultures, able to see each from an outside, embodying and thinking-writing through their signal traumas from what maybe amounts to a “world to come.” All these in-between and outside spaces: don’t they break from capitalist logic, aren’t they zones of freedom?

Lerner goes on to say:


it’s the form of our collective alienation. It’s the transpersonal mistaken for the supernatural but the transpersonal is more awe-inspiring, more exciting than the thing we confuse it for…there’s a sense in which community is already here. It’s already here in the Marfa lights and the circuits of global capital (that moves a baby octopus from Portuguese waters to a Chelsea restaurant) and even if those are deeply perverted forms of interconnectedness they nevertheless have a utopian glimmer.[7]


So here’s a dimension of humanity capitalism supposedly erases but just can’t quite—the transpersonal. Sometimes mistaken for the supernatural. The interconnections we can’t quite see are magic because…we can’t quite see them? Because capitalism won’t let us. Here’s a zone of freedom, to Lerner, these moments right beneath our noses, the tight intimacies and far-flung connections our standard ways of knowing make invisible. That aren’t really supernatural, though. But for Ozeki the two aren’t opposed. There’s room for both, the transpersonal and the supernatural, and sometimes one occasions the other. The same diary that’s written and read and translated and annotated also magically re-writes itself mid-process; it’s at once transpersonal and supernatural.

It turns out ghosts matter. Rationalism, after all, is the preferred language, the preferred epistemology, of capitalism. We do desperately need to be paying attention to zones of freedom, and that means opening up, continually, what freedom might mean, including a wide range of things that don’t make any sense yet and maybe never will. Asian American literature has been happy to tell us this for almost forty years. The world to come needs stuff that ain’t rational.


A Tale does some funky playing with race and coming of age, too. What’s most notable here is what’s missing. By my count A Tale features only one oblique mention of Ruth’s racial self-identification; no direct mention of mixed parentage; and no overt engagement with whiteness or the construction of race. We simply have Ruth the character as stand-in for Ruth Ozeki the novelist, whom we know is mixed;[8] who participated in the Hapa Japan Festival 2013;[9] who serves as both spokesperson for and featured participant in the Vancouver-based Hapa-palooza festival;[10] whose short story “The Anthropologists’ Kids” was published in the 2006 anthology Mixed (accompanied by a brief note about growing up with a white father and Japanese mother); whose first two novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), both feature mixed protagonists and overtly thematize mixed heritages as part of their larger explorations of race, culture, and food politics. But all of these contextual frames remain dormant in the space of A Tale. They are implicitly available (by way of Ruth as Ruth) but never proffered directly.

In another amazing act of self-restraint, Ruth also never comments directly on Nao, having grown up in both Japan and California’s Silicon Valley, alienated in both cultural spaces, as viable analog to or perhaps inverse mirror of Ruth herself as mixed race. If Nao’s transnationality and alienation speak to Ruth as narrator, she resists making overt connections or drawing any larger conclusions about mixedness and migration, mixedness and national/cultural belonging. There’s undeniably a host of resonances between the two characters, but the novel never openly addresses them, much less works them to some warm and fuzzy resolution.

This is quietly transgressive. Especially since the “Multiracial Movement” of the ‘90s and early 2000s, with its push for census change and explosion of mixed race parenting guides and support groups and summer camps and lunchboxes,[11] there’s been a veritable crapload of mixed race novels, mostly bildungsroman, about, you guessed it, growing into and celebrating mixed identity. A lot of angst gets worked through pretty neatly, and we learn that it’s okay to be mixed, and that we need to fiercely claim our right to self-identify. It’s all well-meaning output, but it glosses over a lot of messy stuff that we real-time mixed folks usually never quite manage to sort out. A Tale never lets that happen for Ruth, though, even—especially—as Nao’s narrative is seemingly begging her to figure out some Very Important Things about her Japanese heritage and bi-cultural identity. A Tale summons up that possibility only to foreclose it.

Nao’s coming of age story is never Ruth’s alone to engage. It is also Oliver’s, and Ruth and Oliver’s as shared puzzle, something upon which they freight their long relationship history, at once opening and closing avenues into the story. Nao’s narrative is also Muriel’s, and Muriel, we learn repeatedly, is a gossip who shares it with everyone on the island, so that what Ruth initially wants to see as her own solitary, interior work is never conducted in isolation but always in communal dialogue, whether she likes it or not. Part of the drama of her readerly identification, in fact, is her gradual opening to a dialogic process, admitting she needs the help of Benoit to translate, Oliver to remember pieces of the puzzle she’s forgotten, Dr. Rongstad Leistiko to provide backstory about Nao’s father, Haruki #2, and Muriel, importantly, to help Ruth feel not-crazy. Ruth needs—we as readers need—all of these characters, with all of their curiosity and frustration and outrage and despair, to validate and stimulate and amplify her—and our—own range of emotional, ethical, and identificatory responses.

Entailed in this “it takes a village” logic is a refusal on the part of novel to (over)bind racially, to suggest Nao’s story is Ruth’s alone or Ruth’s first and foremost because Ruth is some kind of racial bridge, because she is mixed, because, as “part” culturally Japanese, “part” racially Asian, she can and has a responsibility to make sense of Nao’s story in ways others can’t. At one point Oliver notes that Ruth’s mother was not, unlike other Japanese, particularly invested in funerals and memorials, and Ruth responds by saying, “Yeah, Mom was weird. She wasn’t very Japanese” (373), to which Oliver retorts, “Neither are you” (373). This is the most direct engagement with cultural/racial identity the novel extends, and any glimmers of special attachment by way of “Japanese-ness” the novel carefully qualifies or counterbalances. If Ruth’s abilities to read Japanese and annotate Nao’s narrative give her, and the reader, a greater depth of understanding of that narrative, so too does Dr. Leistiko’s ability to supply pivotal backstory, and so too does Benoit’s ability to translate Haruki #1’s French journal—not to mention Ruth’s writerly, novelistic sensibilities and how those, if we are to somehow separate them from her “racial” identity, helpfully open Nao’s narrative for us as well. In other words, never do Ruth’s racial identity and cultural heritage eclipse other vectors of engagement. They are part of a spectrum of engagement, just as Ruth is part of a larger community of engagement—each member, because of a variety of reasons, race among them, having differential access to Nao’s narrative and differential consequences of engaging it. (e.g., Haruki #1’s French journal is a real bummer to Benoit.) This is not, I feel obligated to stress, colorblindness or postracialism. No one’s saying race doesn’t matter, er, rather, no one smart is saying race doesn’t matter. Let’s just not go the other direction and dive into essentialisms.

A Tale is a model of what doesn’t quite work and then how to pick up the pieces on the fly. It’s a picture of false starts and messinesses and left-unknowns. Coming of age stories can’t solve the mysteries of race, and ghosts conspire to eff up Nao’s bildungsroman anyway. Ultimately A Tale leaves us with the temple, the diary, the community, the novel: enduring zones of freedom, provisional visions of a world to come. It leaves us with the promise of dialogue, of broad community engagement via reading and writing. Leaves us with no easy, singular stories. Leaves us with ghosts as ghosts. With not-knowing as healthy. Culture and race as situational. These are all good things.

[1] Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America (Durham: Duke UP, 2000).

[2] Perhaps close to what political scientist Janelle Wong has theorized as “bildong.”

[3] A cousin, perhaps, of “queer time.” See Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York:  NYU Press, 2005); Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham:  Duke UP, 2010); and E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, eds., Queer Times, Queer Becomings (New York:  SUNY Press, 2011).

[4] For more on A Tale as an expressly Buddhist meditation, see David Palumbo-Liu’s interview with Ruth Ozeki for Los Angeles Review of Books: https://lareviewofbooks.org/interview/time-ruth-ozeki. (Full disclosure: DPL himself makes a cameo in A Tale, on pages 91 and 305).

[5] http://www.believermag.com/exclusives/?read=interview_lerner_2

[6] Harold Jaffe called for something similar, if framed a bit more radically, in “Slash and Burn: A Narrative Model for the New Millenium”: “If the dissenting American artist wants something of her work to be felt, she must educate herself about contemporary culture, technology, ideology, and media (all of which are largely synonymous). Then, in the spirit of a guerrilla, find a seam, plant a mine, slip away. These seams are the rents, or fault lines, in the web of interlocking ideology which prevents us from being ourselves” (http://jaffeantijaffe.sdsu.edu/slash.html).

[7] http://www.believermag.com/exclusives/?read=interview_lerner_2

[8] See http://www.ruthozeki.com/about/long-bio/

[9] See the Hapa Japan Festival website at http://hapajapan.com/. Full disclosure: AALR helped organize Ozeki’s literary panel at the festival.

[10] http://www.hapapalooza.com/

[11] Okay, I made up the lunchboxes part, but there’s probably a Keanu Reeves lunchbox out there somewhere, and that counts. I should also note that there were a crapload of mixed race novels pre-‘90s, but those less frequently culminated with “it’s okay to be mixed” and more often with “being mixed sucks; mixed people tend to die young and tragically.”

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