Where to begin with this book? I could start somewhere easy, cliche, and say Some books change everything. Or I could be more realistic but still honest and say this book changed everything for me. And if you are a reader—especially a reader who is also an artist of some kind—this may be true for you also. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s talk technicalities.
A Tale For the Time Being is a thick read not for its 432 pages but in its intricacies. The overlapping narratives of Nao and Ruth create a pleasing density that I found myself burrowing into rather than trying to escape. Nao, a Japanese teenager dealing with severe bullying and suicidal father is smart, charming and a total pleasure on the page. When dropping out of school to avoid the bullies, she is sent to her grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun, at a mountain monastery where everyone is forced to show undying gratitude for everything:
At first I was like, no way am I saying that, but when you hang out with people who are always being super grateful and appreciating things and saying thank you, in the end it kind of rubs off, and one day after I'd flushed, I turned to the toilet and said, "Thanks, toilet," and it felt pretty natural. I mean, it's the kind of thing that's okay to do if you're in a temple on the side of a mountain, but you'd better not try it in your junior high school washroom, because if your classmates catch you bowing and thanking the toilet they'll drown you in it. I explained this to Jiko, and she agreed it wasn't such a good idea, but that it was okay just to feel grateful sometimes, even if you don't say anything. Feeling is the important part. You don't have to make a big deal about it.
Nao's voice is compelling, pulling readers to the end where we hope to find out if Nao survived the tsunami that probably washed her journal and a few other clues up on Ruth's Canadian shore.
And while Nao is entertaining the hell out of you with her adorable--though truly sad at times--tale, you have Ruth in a full-blown existential crisis that can artist can immediately relate to. For example, when Nao's narrative takes on mystical qualities for Ruth, she laments:
"Am I crazy? I feel like I am sometimes."
"Maybe," he [her husband] said, rubbing her forehead. "But don't worry about
it. You need to be a little crazy. Crazy is the price you pay for having an
imagination. It's your superpower. Tapping into the dream. It's a good, not a
As she continues to investigate the journal that washed up on her shore, providing extensive footnotes for things that her readers may not understand about Nao's history, Japanese culture, and temple culture, she continues to explore her own difficulties in bringing her memoir to completion:
An unfinished book, left unattended, turns feral, and she would need all her focus, will, and ruthless determination to tame it again.
Ruth the character also explores common writer frustrations like the limitation of language:
That's what it feels like when I write, like I have this beautiful world in my head, but when I try to remember it in order to write it down, I change it, and I can't ever get it back.
And while the novel is peppered with sage and beautiful advice for us creative types, I was particularly moved by what Ruth (the character)'s husband had to say about art:
The work succeeds when all the cleverness and artifice have disappeared, after years of harvest and regrowth, when people begin to experience it as ambiance. Any residual aura of me as artist...will have faded. It will no longer matter. That is when the work gets interesting...it becomes more than 'art'. It becomes part of the optical subconscious. Change has occurred. It's the new normal, just the way things are.
The reason why this particular quote is so moving is because a lot of newbie authors like myself get real bent out of shape about our work and how it is received and perceived by others. But think about Harry Potter. Name a child today that doesn't have that world as part of their optical subconscious now? That is what so many of us aspire to, yet fail to realize how we must utterly and totally let go of our work in order to achieve it. The creator, like any parent, must step back and watch their creation grow--for better or worse. Yet many of an artist--definitely myself included, get very upset about this aspect of the process and feel nothing short of terror when our work is pulled from our hands.
And that is the essence of why I liked this book so much. It changed the way I saw myself and my work, unfolding these lessons gently in a beautiful, lyrical narrative that was truly exceptional. But a lot of it was about timing--as it always is for the Time Being--I read this just at just the right moment, and the magic happened.
Nao even says herself: And if you decide not to read anymore, hey, no problem, because you're not the one I was waiting for anyway. But if you decide to read on, then guess what? You're my kind of time being and together we'll make magic!
And it is magic, when you read just the right book at just the right time in your life. So maybe the time for you to read this book is right now. Or maybe it isn't.
You won't know until you try.