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.”