Fittingly, since it is on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, A Tale for the Time Being, is, I think, one of the most egregious examples of the ‘pretentious award baiting novel’ stereotype I’ve ever read. A non-linear narrative, appendices, a narrator who’s a fictionalised version of the author, discovery of a hidden treasure that may have been related to a recent tragedy (in this instance the Fukushima earthquake and the resulting tsunami), religion and philosophy, death, and a rather uncomfortable sexual encounter. Despite all of this, it’s a distinctly average book. There are some good aspects, but in general the story was quite boring and the execution made it hard to become invested.
The general premise is that Ruth, a woman of Japanese descent living on the west coast of Canada discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox that contains a watch, some old letters written in Japanese and a copy of À la recherche du temps perdu with the pages cut out and replaced with a diary, also written in Japanese. As she translates the writing, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the author of the diary, Naoko Yusitani. Naoko (or Nao, pronounced Now), is a teenager who, though having spent most of her formative years in Silicon Valley, has returned to Japan. In a manner surprisingly reminiscent of the works of Haruki Murakami) where her father spirals into depression, her mother starts work and spends barely any time at home, and Nao herself is the subject of horrendous bullying. Everything looks horrible, until Nao is introduced to her great-grandmother, a former anarcho-feminist turned Zen Monk, Jiko, when things begin to slowly turn around.
It’s not quite as straightforward as that, with the two plots (Nao’s diary and Ruth’s reading of the diary) are intertwined, with Ruth regularly getting caught up in the moment of reading, forgetting that the events she’s reading are happening in parallel to her life. Time in general (as you’d think from the title), is a major theme in the novel, but it’s quite difficult to see what the point of it is. There are plenty of references to time passing, time changing and lost time throughout the novel, but Ozeki doesn’t really manage to tie the threads together into anything meaningful.
There is a certain contradiction to A Tale for the Time Being, which is that the thing that annoyed me most about the book was actually one of the best bits. Ruth’s relationship with her husband, Oliver (also named for and based upon Ozeki’s husband) was sweet in a way, particularly in the aftermath of a fight they have over Nao’s father, but his main purpose is to provide info dumps. We get lots of in-depth knowledge about the pacific gyre and ocean patterns and ornithology and parallel worlds, and all sorts of interesting things, but not only does it feel like Oliver has swallowed an encyclopaedia, but none of it is really relevant. At least, it is relevant, and Oliver always has appropriate information for whatever Ruth is reading at the time, but it’s unnecessary. It doesn’t add much to the book, and feels very much like padding. But Oliver is a good character, unlike most of the others. He’s rational and empathetic, and he somehow manages to keep Ruth grounded, despite her tendency to go off into the deep end when it comes to Nao’s diary.
I’ll admit that by the time I got to the end, A Tale for the Time Being had sunk its hooks into me, but I think that was only in the last third or so of the actual text. By that point, once Jiko had finally entered the story, Nao had become less of an obnoxious brat, and we’d discovered more about Haruki #1. In fact, the two Harukis are far more interesting than Nao or Ruth. The first, Nao’s great-uncle who was drafted as a kamikaze pilot in World War II, the second Nao’s father whose morality caused him to be fired from his job designing missile software which prompts him into a spiral of depression and suicide attempts. The parallels between them, especially those unveiled in the closing chapters, are really interesting, and they aren’t covered in enough detail, I don’t think. Certainly too much is subtly hinted at rather than stated outright, which I don’t think was enough. I would happily have read a whole book simply about the two men, in the same style as The Road Between Us, and having to get the story second-hand through Ruth and from Nao’s perspective kind of put me off a bit; there’s just too much going on.
So, my thoughts on its Booker nomination? I don’t think it’s as unworthy as Five Star Billionaire, but it’s definitely one of the weaker of the nominated books I’ve read. I definitely don’t think it’s short-list worthy!
As a final note, there is an interesting symmetry to my reading this book. The idea of parallel universes and quantum physics appears in the last few chapters, and the fourth and final appendix provides a bit of background information on the physicist Hugh Everett III, who formulated a lot of the early thought on parallel universe. This appendix also mentions Everett’s children, Elizabeth and Mark, though it doesn’t reveal that Mark is the force behind Eels and the author of the fifth book I read this year. Quite fitting I thought.