Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)

I want to embed a sound clip of myself sighing. This is frustrating. When I started reading this book, I was really into it--I was engaged and sucked in and all those other really positive things people say about books. But before I was even a third of the way done, the book was dragging: I was bored and inventing reasons not to read it. By the end, I was really unhappy and a little bit horrified. Where was the book I loved at the beginning?

Ruth Ozeki's novel has a rather elaborate set-up. The main character (also named Ruth, which is a thing that writers do that I don't like) is walking on the beach and finds a plastic bag with a lunch box in it; inside that is an old watch, an English diary written by Nao Yasutani, and a series of letters written in Japanese and a French diary. The book alternates between Nao's diary and Ruth reacting to what she has/we have just read.

Nao's diary is by far the most interesting; not only is Nao a delightful, vibrant character, but her writings manage to be educational and interesting. She provides a fascinating insider/outsider perspective on Japanese culture--her parents moved to the United States and had her, and in her teens, they move back to Japan. Her detailing of Japan as someone who should belong to its culture but does not is heartbreaking--she is cruelly rejected. She finds solace in her nun great-grandmother, Jiko, who is also a fun character because, I mean, she's a spunky 104-year-old Buddhist. What's not to love about that? To add to the concoction that is the set-up, it appears that Ruth has annotated Nao's diary, as if she's published it. What?

On the other hand, Ruth's sections were insufferable. At first, I was attracted to them as much as I was to Nao's, but it didn't take long for me to grow incredibly weary of her. I can't tell if we're not supposed to like her, but I certainly didn't; this is a problem because I don't believe that we were supposed to dislike her. Her sections are filled with pointed ravings (there's a section where she and her husband/boyfriend/what are freaking out about greedy capitalism and the environment)--I can understand wanting your book to have a strong message, but thinly veiling it by putting it in the mouths of your characters (especially one that shares the author's name) is not the way to go. This is Happy Feet syndrome, which was an adorable movie about dancing/singing penguins that suddenly got awful when it was like "blah blah the environment", a cause I support. Don't be so obvious with your motives, okay?

I am a self-professed fan of magical realism, but not when it awkwardly appears in the story more as a deus ex machina than as an actual plot device. Actual use: One Hundred Years of Solitude. Deus ex machina: Jane Eyre. Actual use: The River of No Return. Deus ex machina: A Tale for the Time Being. I'm not even sure it's a deus ex thing here, just bizarre and annoying. I don't want to spoil what happens, but there appears to be some entanglement with Ruth the reader and the events of the diary and it's very puzzling and abstract and unresolved. I was upset with the technique because it was confusing and obviously unnecessary.

In general, the book was a giant problem for me. I had to struggle through it, often feeling like things were too trendycool for their own good. The book was certainly an experiment, but it wasn't necessarily a good one. Nao's diary on its own would have made a fantastic, interesting, exploratory novel, albeit a short one; it's clear that Ozeki is a talented writer because I occasionally forgot that no one actually found the diary. But she apparently loses control with the section with the other (the same? This is why I hate this device) Ruth, trying to go big when she ought to have gone home. What a shame.

My rating: 2/5
A Tale for the Time Being on Goodreads
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