A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being

Hollywood is responsible for many of life’s ills, but few have been taken to heart by corporations quite like the Awards industry. Jennifer Lawrence, wreathed in Dior and Cartier, clutching the world’s most recognised award, is cynically repackaged into The Corrugated Paper Packaging Awards in a polyester-swathed hotel conference room. An assortment of clients and suppliers are wheeled in in their finery at great cost-per-table to act out a little Oscars fantasy.

In my former industry, advertising, I attended a number of these star-studded events and would even have taken home a glass cube paperweight award had my immediate senior not lost his own and requisitioned mine in a smooth assertion of the pecking order. These events represent the lower end of the industry award spectrum, but the higher end – the D&ADs, the Cannes Lions – represent a greater bone of contention. In advertising, it boils down to this: creative awards are given for adverts which most resemble art or entertainment. This is the sort of thing agencies are desperate to make, as they are all thwarted artists forced into the grubby world of commerce. Creatives (who come up with the adverts) are paid handsomely for winning awards and want nothing else. Clients (paying for the adverts) hate awards with a viperous acidity, as all they want is an advert which will SELL, SELL, SELL.

Carnage ensues.

All this has given me a taste for an anarchic attitude to prizes, subverting the reverence which the awards industry tries to inspire. This isn’t to say I don’t love literary prizes: Pulitzer, Orange, Booker… bring them my way. But it also means I was thrilled to find this page on the internet – the odds for the respective Man Booker longlist. Lofty literature prize presided over by raven-like culturites meets cheesy chips’n’gravy corner-shop pot-belly bookies? Delicious.


Anyway, I should have looked at that BEFORE choosing my punt on the longlist, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Now I discover it’s 14:1 (though Ladbrokes have more faith in Ozeki’s prose at 8:1.) It’s hard to get over the early realisation that the novelist is a Japanese-American called Ruth who lives in British Colombia with her husband Oliver … as is one of the main characters. (It’s also hard to get over the fact that the novelist is a Zen-Buddhist priest, but that’s just because I live a sheltered little life). Ruth discovers a diary on the beach written by a Japanese teenager, Nao, a decade previously, and becomes deeply involved with her story so that the limits between Nao and Ruth are gradually eroded.

On one level this novel is terrifically abstract and thematic. The chief theme is that of time, but sub-themes proliferate: being, narrative, religion, suffering, identity and everyone’s favourite: death. Not-so-subtle allusions include Schrödinger’s cat , quantum physics and zen buddhism. There’s a pleasing ambiguity to the tale preventing it from becoming too “fantasy” while remaining a touch mind-bending.

The story can be read on a quite different level – a teenager struggling with extreme bullying and a suicidal father, a novelist struggling with feelings of isolation and psychological langour, and the impact that each has on the other. Ruth and Nao’s contrasting voices form a perfect balance and Ozeki conjures a real urgency from the essentially static storyline.

The dual levels of the novel merge with satisfying complexity, each dependent on the other to bring it to life. Two very different societies are conjured up in all of their difference but ultimately linked on a liminal, spiritual plane.

I wouldn’t put money on A Tale for the Time Being making the top spot in this year’s Booker. Luckily, we readers are less mercenary in our motivations, and it’s an interesting read. My current read is on the shortlist too, so if I keep it up, I’ll run my own stakes. Cheesy chips’n’gravy and pot-bellies always welcome at the Room of Joy.


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