Monday 14 October 2013

A Tale for the Time Being

(October 2013)

This isn’t really one book. This is two books, one interleaved with the other. And while one of these books is really very, very good, the other isn’t. The other’s quite bad, actually.

I’ve always been wary of the device whereby authors insert themselves into their own fictional works. I don’t just mean having a character who exists solely to provide a mouthpiece for the author’s worldview, because to some extent all characters exist to serve that function. What I’m talking about is when in a notionally fictional book written by David Small, say, there will be a character called David Small whose job is to write books, and who will usually make arch and significant comments about the process of writing and the nature of fiction.


Perhaps more than that though, it’s just a little weird when people insist on referring to themselves in the third-person.

A Tale… is the story of Ruth, who’s a novelist who lives on the Pacific coast of Canada. Ruth Ozeki (the real one) is a novelist who lives on the Pacific coast of Canada. Ruth (the fictional one) is a novelist who finds the diary of a Japanese girl washed up on the beach and, being a novelist, reads it in conjunction with her didactic and conveniently knowledgeable friends and acquaintances, none of whom are novelists, unlike Ruth.

Ruth (the real one) is very keen for you to know that Ruth (the fictional one) is a novelist.

It was only in an urban landscape, amid straight lines and architecture, that she could situate herself in human time and history. As a novelist she needed this.

That diary, however, is brilliant. Nao is a returnee Japanese junior high school student dealing with bullying and the dissolution of her family, and her voice precisely captures the sadness and fragile cockiness of disillusioned and alienated teens the world over. She also speaks with wit and insight to a large number of genuinely contemporary concerns in Japanese society.

Mom was almost never home at this time. She was into her jellyfish phase… She had read somewhere that watching kurage was beneficial to your health because it reduces stress levels, only the problem was that a lot of other housewives had read the same article, so it was always crowded in front of the tank, and the aquarium had to set out folding chairs, and you had to get there really early to get a good spot, all of which was very stressful. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure she was having a nervous breakdown at the time…

See? Glorious. Quite why then Ruth (whichever) felt the need to mar this with what is essentially a parallel-text study guide, I have no idea. The structure is journal entry – musing about entry – journal entry – musing – entry – musing etc etc and so on, which is exactly the same format as was my A-Level copy of The Canterbury Tales. There are even footnotes offering a gloss. Footnotes, for fuck’s sake.* This book is published by Canongate, but York Notes would have been a more natural fit.

This is also another lauded North American novel banging on about Proust. Almost every review of this has seen fit to clarify that Nao is pronounced ‘Now’, because it is a significant name. Time, Time Being, you see? With wearying predictability her diary is written inside a hollowed out copy of A la recherché du temps perdu. In Search of Lost Time is several million words long and covers about seven volumes. I know this because Wikipedia tells me so. I’ve not read it, no fucker has, because it’s ridiculous and hard and seven volumes long and, apparently, a schoolgirl’s diary. A schoolgirl called Now (good job she wasn’t called Fukumi, eh? Though Histoire d’O might have done just as well on the Infamous Gallic Literature charts, come to think of it). This snippet also demonstrates that I’m well capable of using Google, something which occupies an inordinate amount of Ruth’s (don’t care) time. The process of looking up lots of information on the internet does not presently lend itself to being described dramatically or compellingly, nor will it ever.

I realize I’m bludgeoning you somewhat with the bold and the capitals and the ITALICS, but that is because I am MAKING A POINT, and I’m afraid the lack of subtlety is a little bit contagious.

I just… Look, this is a massively frustrating book. Nao is a phenomenal creation whose voice is perfect, absolutely perfect. She is funny, she is wise, she is heart-breaking and sorrowful and wonderful in oh so many ways. And then we have the rest of it. I genuinely don’t know how the person responsible for the former could have countenanced the latter; you can’t even filter it out by simply reading every other chapter because of all those sodding footnotes. It’s as if you’d bought the special edition DVD of your favourite movie to find that the only available soundtrack was the director’s commentary. Irritating, to say the least.

*They’re annoying, no? ← This is what I mean about metatextual wankery. ← And this.


  1. Awesome review. I say that because the review confirms what I was feeling when I read the book and was increasingly irritated by Ruth to the point of wanting to skip the Ruth sections of the book to read the Nao sections. The premise of the book is loaded with potential and Ruth Ozeki's brilliance is clear with the Nao narrative. The Ruth narrative could have worked if Ruth Ozeki hadn't injected herself in there because her whining threatened to drown out the bits she was good at. She is not interesting to a reader and, I guess, should have avoided professional hubris to create art as opposed to a bloody good book.
    End of.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I'm also amused by how directly you tie something being 'awesome' to how closely it corresponds to your existing views. If only everyone were that honest ;)

      I've read that the Ruth sections were supposed to be drawing from the tradition of the 'I' story that writers like Akutagawa experimented with. Which would be fine if it wasn't all quite so tedious. At least Akutagawa had the sense to keep it short.

  2. I'm glad you read this, since it removes any temptation I may have felt to do the same.

    1. Ah, I don't know whether to be happy about that or not. The Nao sections are genuinely excellent, and I think you'd find a lot you'd recognise and like in them. I almost want to to a physical edit, where I cut out the rest to leave just a single, slimmer but better volume.

    2. Hmm. Maybe her next novel will be better? I'd like to read the good parts, but my life is too short to content willingly with crap....