The Transcontinental Novel That Probably Won't Win the Booker Prize

Ruth Ozeki's third novel combines historical research and experimental fiction in a way that's inventive but not groundbreaking.
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This post is part of a weekly series in which Atlantic staffers offer their takes on the six novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Viking Adult

The chatter surrounding the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has assigned each of the shortlisted writers a niche in the competition—except for Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale For the Time Being. Jim Crace has his swan song, Colm Tóibín  has the thinnest book ever shortlisted, NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel is her debut, Eleanor Catton is the youngest author ever nominated, and Jhumpa Lahiri has a Pulitzer. But aside from brief mentions of Ozeki’s biography—she’s a filmmaker and an ordained Buddhist priest—the critics have left Ozeki the writer without a designated slot. How zen. 

And how appropriate for Ozeki’s third novel, an unabashedly metafictional work that, she has said, was a real struggle to write. In fact, she inserts that struggle into the book, which has two main narrators: a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao, who keeps a diary, and a woman who inexplicably finds the journal in a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on a shore near her island home in western Canada. The woman, Ruth, is a thinly fictionalized version of Ozeki, and the diary, it seems, has floated all the way across the Pacific after Japan’s catastrophic 2011 tsunami. Ruth, stymied by work on her own memoir, becomes consumed with learning as much as she can about Nao.

Ozeki turns the novel into, in essence, an annotated commentary that radiates out from Nao’s alternately cheerful and angsty account of an unhappy adolescence. Ruth pursues many threads brought up in the diary, gathering the results of her research in the footnotes and appendices that are tacked onto Nao’s half of the novel. Sometimes the quest doesn’t take readers anywhere very interesting. Ozeki dwells too long, for instance, on Ruth’s failed Google searches for Nao and her family, and halfway through the book, I’d nearly had it with hearing about her cat’s sleeping habits.

But often Ruth’s forays carry her to unexpected places. As she looks into Nao’s family history, she learns of a great uncle, Haruki, who was conscripted during his college years into flying a kamikaze mission in World War II. Ozeki grants us a glimpse of his diary, as he grapples with his impending flight. “There is no use, no way of stopping time,” he writes, “and so I lie here, paralyzed.” Ozeki contrasts his powerlessness over passing time with the suicidal thoughts from Nao’s diary, where she struggles to feel grounded in the present moment; he resists his death, but she wants hers to come sooner. The novel’s references to suicide go on to reverberate in interesting ways—who would’ve thought you could draw a link between a teenage girl’s desperation and the catastrophe of 9/11, by way of kamikaze pilots, and pull it off?

Those failed Google searches turn out to be merely the preview to a productive blend of historical research and rich invention. It’s clear how much Ozeki’s nuanced portrait of Haruki owes to her immersion in very moving letters written by actual university students who shared Haruki’s fate. At the same time, Ozeki ranges freely as she fills in Nao’s family tree. She brings in a wide cast of characters, including my personal favorite, the 104-year-old Jiko, a Buddhist nun who in one scene sings a karaoke version of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” and in another silences a loudmouthed young punk with a single deep bow.

There’s a reason that A Tale For the Time Being has made it so far in the Booker process without much attention paid to its metafictional strategies. This is a committee striving hard for diversity, which means making room for experimental fiction—and not making a big deal about it. But there’s more to it than that: The truth is, Ozeki’s narrative inventiveness, on its own, isn’t exactly trailblazing. Her novel—complete with its occasional illustrations and stylized text—can read like Dave Eggers Lite, and Ozeki’s recourse to self-reflexiveness at times feels forced, especially in light of the high standards for using literary devices like these nowadays. As Ruth’s husband at one point says about creative innovation, as he’s theorizing on the evolution of a work of art: “It becomes part of the optical subconscious. Change has occurred. It’s the new normal, just the way things are.”

There was a book on the Man Booker longlist that quickly got placed in the cutting-edge niche—thanks not to its textual idiosyncrasies, but to its multimedia delivery: Richard House’s The Kills, which began life as sequentially published e-books supplemented with video and audio content. It’s a “digital-first” novel, the publisher boasts, but the prize committee, it seems, made the curious decision to render judgment on only the words—and House didn’t make the cut for the shortlist. Ozeki’s novel looks almost old-school in comparison, and I’d guess that A Tale For the Time Being is a long shot for the prize. But if you’re wondering what’s next on the agenda of Man Booker inclusiveness now that Americans will be eligible for the prize next year, here’s another prediction: The digital form won’t be far behind. 

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Joe Pinsker does story research for The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling StoneForbes, and Salon.

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