In Ruth Ozeki's 1998 debut novel, My Year of Meats, two very different women from disparate cultures cross paths and connect, finding common ground in the universal concerns, and later themes, of motherhood and love. One woman, a TV producer, has an American father and a Japanese mother. The other is a browbeaten Japanese housewife at the mercy of her domineering husband. We flit between perspectives, feel the distance between the women steadily shrink, and look on as the characters awaken to, and marvel at, the interconnectedness of our lives.
Ozeki has returned to this structure for her extraordinary third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, only with significant modifications. Once again we have two female leads: Ruth, a writer, her father American, her mother Japanese; and Nao, a Tokyo schoolgirl at the mercy of domineering school bullies. We chop and change from one character to the other, shuttling between East and West, but this time Ozeki operates on a larger scale and from a more elaborate agenda, exploring not only how lives intersect but also examining the crucial role played by such abstracts as time and place and the equally troublesome duality of fact and fiction. As if that weren't enough, Ozeki also measures existence in spiritual and scientific terms, bringing in and then twining Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics. It is an ambitious, even forbidding synopsis, full of potentially self-imploding, career-killing tricks, and at first blush we wonder if the novel is too ingenious for its own good. But Ozeki has the last laugh by successfully meshing each of her ideas and entertaining and impressing in equal measure.
The two characters are strategically positioned poles around which all else - plot, thoughts, secondary characters - revolves. When we meet both for the first time, Ozeki cuts to the chase and outlines her premise. Sixteen-year-old Nao is in a manga cafe in Tokyo's Electricity Town district filling her secret diary with details of her sad life which she intends to take, just as soon as she has also finished recounting the story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, "the famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun".
We switch to Ruth on her remote, storm-lashed island in Desolation Sound in the Pacific Northwest who one day finds a lunch box containing Nao's diary washed up on the beach - yet more debris, the islanders suspect, from the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The novel unfolds from here with writer (Noa) and reader (Ruth) carrying out their respective duties: Nao writes about her last days on earth ("I'm going to graduate from time") which comprises her ineffectual father's many disastrous suicide attempts, her horrific ordeals at the hands of the bullies, and her life-altering summer sojourn at Jiko's temple retreat; Ruth reads, and with help from husband Oliver tries to second-guess Nao's next move, and with a little sleuthing on her part, seeks to determine whether Nao may in fact still be alive. The more involved Ruth gets, the stronger the "karmic connection" she develops with this mysterious diarist. Island life was being to feel like "withdrawal", a crippling self-exile from her previous life in New York, but Nao's fate preoccupies her, just as writing the diary gave Nao a much-needed raison d'être.
This novel contains many autobiographical elements. Writer Ruth is loosely modelled on her creator (Ozeki also comes from American-Japanese parents, is married to an Oliver and lives on a similar island), but perhaps most importantly, Ozeki, an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, for the first time incorporates her beliefs in her fiction by creating a character cut from the same cloth. As a result her novel feels more personal than previous offerings, and with everything from the smallest detail to the largest set-piece ringing true. The Japan sequences in particular are incredible, whether we are immersed in the solitude of Jiko's safe haven or experiencing the alienating oddness and frenetic whirl of the "sounds and smells and colours and lights and advertising and people and fashion and newspaper headlines that make up the noisy ocean of Tokyo". Not every writer can do this. Haruki Murakami, Japan's most famous living writer, is adept at conveying the estrangement of the lonely individual marooned in contemporary Japanese life, and yet for all his supposed abundance is strangely thrifty when delineating Japanese topography and quirks and eccentricities. Ozeki is far more extravagant, and authenticates the lost soul Nao by imbuing her with very real personal trauma and a stunningly recreated public playground in which to disorient herself.
However, Ozeki has a propensity to be too all-encompassing. In short, her Japan is too Japanese, feeling in places as if Ozeki has compiled a checklist of references that must, absolutely, be sprinkled, or if necessary, shoehorned in. Certain ideas are cannily touched upon: Japanese long life expectancy but also its flip side, "death from overwork"; similarly, and as with Nao's father, the expediency of suicide, especially as a means of saving face. Ozeki also utilises a wealth of Japanese folklore and even language itself (many pages come studded with kanji and explanatory footnotes). An illuminating backstory about a kamikaze pilot and his wartime training enlarges our understanding of Imperial Japan's barbarism and attempts to win a war at all costs. But elsewhere are references to samurais and hara-kiri and karaoke and schoolgirl underwear fetishes and sarin gas and Hello Kitty, and we query whether we need them all. Nao's father even does origami. Another problem is Nao's language. We learn she grew up in California while her father was part of the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley, and this, along with her age, accounts for the repetition of "cool" and "awesome" and "dude" and countless exclamation marks, but it grates after a while. Worse, in the rare lapses when Nao's first-person adolescent-speak drowns out the actual events in her strand, we end up looking forward to the switch to Ruth's less shrill third-person segment.
And yet there is so much more to enjoy than there is to find fault with. Each story neatly counterpoises the other. Ruth's "fog-enshrouded outpost on the mossy margin of the world" is an ocean away from the "huge, strobing hallucination of neon lights and giant manga action heroes". When images and ideas don't contradict they deftly overlap or dovetail into one other. The tale of the kamikaze pilot segues to a brief meditation on their modern-day equivalents on 9/11. Nao's diary is actually a "hacked" copy of À la recherche du temps perdu - which naturally leads to much musing on memory and whether lost time (and by extension Nao, writing in what is the past for Ruth) can ever be found again. Clever wordplay abounds (Nao is a "time being", which spins the book's title into a pun; Ruth as a non-being is akin to "ruthlessness") and Ozeki delights with garbled English (Nao must toughen up and develop her "supapawa!") and bleakly apposite broken English (Nao's suicidal father smokes a brand of cigarette called Short Hopes). And while the interweaving of Buddhist philosophy and its mantras and sutras may not be to every reader's taste (doing zazen sitting on your zafu), Ozeki is careful to serve it as a series of light bites rather than a force-fed glut, and without a trace of saccharine sentimentality. Perhaps we should be grateful that old Jiko is cool, measured and rational and not one of the "Zen Lunatics" Kerouac warns us about in The Dharma Bums.
"Readers are writers," Ozeki has said in interview, and A Tale for the Time Being plays with the reader-writer relationship while spinning an absorbing yarn. It is an ingenious, multilayered novel that, quite possibly because of those layers, works on so many levels - thrilling us, magicking us, prompting us to pause and reflect. But ultimately, like Ruth, we read on, keen to learn what happened to Nao and her father. Ozeki may be clinging to a structure she has used before, but the startling originality of her book's components, specifically her believable, fully realised characters whose fates actually matter to us, ensures that A Tale for the Time Being, her third and finest novel yet, is in a league all of its own.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.