A decade after publishing her last fiction, Ruth Ozeki emerges with a terrific new novel full of breakthroughs both personal and literary. “A Tale for the Time Being” (Viking, 420 pp., $28.95) is set in Japan and Canada after the Japan tsunami of 2011.
In her award-winning novels “My Year of Meats” (1998) and “All Over Creation” (2003), Ozeki created characters operating within the dynamics of modern issues, such as global meat production and cross-cultural public relations, or agro companies versus family farms.
In her newest work, she revels in Tokyo teen culture — this goes far beyond Hello Kitty — and explores quantum physics, military applications of computer video games, Internet bullying and Marcel Proust as well, all while creating a vulnerable and unique voice for the 16-year-old girl at its center.
What’s personal here is that Ozeki uses autobiographical material for her characters. The character Ruth, like Ruth Ozeki, is a novelist who hasn’t published in a decade because she spent that time caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s; the character Oliver has the name and bio of Ozeki’s husband, an environmental artist.
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These characters live on an island in British Columbia, as do Ozeki and her husband. Recently ordained as a Zen priest, Ozeki has infused this novel with a Zen perspective, and this playful use of her “identity” as a writer seems to be part of it.
The novel begins with Ruth finding a handwritten diary wrapped in layers of plastic on the beach. She reads the diary of Naoko (who calls herself Nao, and who loves the sound play that suggests “now”), a possibly suicidal Japanese teenager.
It appears that the diary has been carried across the Pacific on the leading edge of the wave of anticipated debris coming from Japan after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Disturbed by Nao’s plight, and wondering whether she survived the tsunami, Ruth researches Nao and her family on the Internet. Nao’s dire and dramatic entries alternate with a third-person narrative of Ruth and Oliver’s more contemplative life on a stormy Northwest island and their developing understanding of Nao’s situation.
Brutally bullied at her high school and on the Internet because she is different, having been raised in America, Nao is as moving a witness to coming of age as J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, if not more so because she is so contemporary. Preoccupied with questions of immortality, this young voice shouts from her pages, “Hey, answer me! Am I stuck inside of a garbage can, or not?”
Folded within Nao’s narrative is Jiko, her beloved 104-year-old great-grandmother, an early Japanese feminist novelist and Zen nun in northern Japan (near the tsunami devastation) who exchanges text messages with her; her long-dead great uncle, a philosophy and French literature student forced to become a kamikaze pilot in World War II; and her father, a computer programmer who has lost his job in California for reasons explained late in the novel.
Ozeki has produced a dazzling and humorous work of literary origami: The narrative sections fold over on themselves in time and theme and wordplay; Nao posits a past in her diary and also a future (Ruth and you, her future reader, are reading it later in time). Nao’s voice — funny, profane and deep — is stirring and unforgettable as she ponders the meaning of her life.