Review of A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
Ruth Ozeki (writer).
Read in 2019.
Read in its Swedish translation.
I don’t usually read modern non-SFF novels, and I found this experience illustrative of my prejudices against them. It is a breezy read for a metafictional brick with six appendices, but it left no deep impression.
The Japanese terminology is fun, even when it is completely gratuitous, as in the footnote for the word 「喫茶」 (“café” without meaningful cultural differences). However, it’s fun for me only because I know the language. It feels overly indulgent for a Japanese-American author to insert both herself and an American-Japanese protagonist like herself into the narrative, playing this particular national combination to the hilt purely for reasons of personal experience. The use of Japanese terms is, unfortunately, just a symptom of this indulgence.
A lot of the emblems of the Japanese connection are of the most famous and spectacular pop-culture variety: tokkōtai suicide attacks, atomic bombs, a centenarian Zen Buddhist fount of wisdom, Akiba maid cafés, schoolgirl prostitutes, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima meltdown, all common top-of-mind memes at the time of writing. I had more apprecation for the depiction of bullying, Haruki #1’s early-Shōwa intellectual response to similar bullying, and Haruki #2’s deep depression. The direct reference to Jubei-chan: Secret of the Lovely Eyepatch (1999) is appropriate enough.
The metafiction amounts to supernatural events with the flimsy ontology typical of authors who want to write fantasy but are desperately afraid of genre stigma. At one point, the narrative also veers into science fiction. Haruki #2 invents “Mu-Mu Vital Hygienics”, effectively the “inverse killfile” technology of William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, but of course this invention is stuffed with stupid quantom woo and treated as no more than a minor convenience to the personal drama’s happy end.