Reading Like a Writer: A Tale for the Time Being and a Ghost Image
I'm interested in what can happen when characters are allowed to use their imaginations. We learn so much about them. Their fantasies can also resonate as ghosted images throughout the rest of the book.
In Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, a writer in British Columbia finds the washed-up diary of a high school girl in Japan and becomes entranced by her story. Eventually the two lives even influence each other.
Nao (the Japanese teenager) does some crazy imagining in an early entry of her diary. She's describing a stranger sitting near her in a café.
But you can never tell. Everything changes, and anything is possible, so maybe I'll change my mind about him, too. Maybe in the next few minutes, he will lean awkwardly in my direction and say something surprisingly beautiful to me, and I will be overcome with a fondness for him in spite of his greasy hair and bad complexion, and I'll actually condescend to converse with him a little bit, and eventually he will invite me to go shopping, and if he can convince me he's madly in love with me, I'll go to a department store with him and let him buy me a cute cardigan sweater or a keitai or handbag, even though he obviously doesn't have a lot of money. Then after, maybe we'll go to a club and drink some cocktails, and zip into a love hotel with a big Jacuzzi, and after we bathe, just as I begin to feel comfortable with him, suddenly his true inner nature will emerge, and he'll tie me up and put the plastic shopping bag from my new cardigan over my head and rape me, and hours later the police will find my lifeless naked body bent at odd angles on the floor, next to the big round zebra bed.
Or maybe he will just ask me to strangle him a little with my panties while he gets off on their beautiful aroma.
Or maybe none of these things will happen except in my mind and yours, because, like I told you, together we're making magic, at least for the time being.
In this passage, Nao gives us a memorable (though disturbing) image even as she takes it away. She tells us from the start that she's just imagining, but the specific details make the scene as real as anything we see in fiction: the greasy hair, the cardigan sweater, the Jacuzzi, the zebra bed. What happens in the reader's mind is the same as if she were telling us this thing really occurred.
Even though we picture this scene as real, when she reminds us again that it's fake, we become aware that we are imagining the event just like she is imagining it. That creates a more intimate connection with Nao. It's not that she's doing a thing and we're picturing it; we're both picturing it. We're both, as she says, "making magic."
But then, of course, we shut it off in our heads, too. We understand a little bit more about how Nao's mind works, and we're probably fascinated by it, but we know it's not the reality of her situation. Still, this vivid image will probably sit with us as we read further. It will be a sort of ghost image imposed on the "true" things she later tells us.
Eventually, some bullies at Nao's school get ahold of her panties and sell them online. When that happens, we recognize it. That ghost image of the man smelling her panties rears up in our minds and resonates. We think, oh! that imagined scene was foreshadowing!
That's the traditional way foreshadowing works, but this one gets more interesting.
When the panty episode occurs in her real life, we also get a kind of release. With the prophecy of it fulfilled, it seems the ghost image has served its purpose, and we can let go of it.
Much later, we learn of Nao's stint as a sex worker and get a scene that mimics her imagined one quite explicitly. The imagined and dismissed image sets us up brilliantly for this actual scene. Her fantasy has shown us what is possible in her world, so we believe it. Yet we've already discounted it as imaginary and dismissed the prophetic (or foreshadowed) aspect as realized. Thus, we can be fully surprised by it.
There's one more thing. When Nao describes this later scene, she says it is just like her earlier musing except for the zebra bed. First, the mention of the bed reminds us of her earlier description, just in case we've forgotten. But it also leaves open that one little piece of it. We get to wonder if that part will also be fulfilled. When the book ends without any appearance of an actual zebra bed, we still halfway expect there to be one in her future, which makes Nao live beyond the pages of the book.
(This idea is reinforced through the writer's attempts to verify Nao's existence through the internet. We're supposed to look for her elsewhere.)
When I studied this passage to write about it, I noticed one more fascinating and related thing: the cardigan sweater. It's first mentioned as a potential thing. The long sentence starts with "maybe," and when we get to the cardigan, Nao hasn't decided what the gift will be—"a cute cardigan sweater or a keitai or handbag." We can picture a cardigan sweater of course, but "cute" is a vague modifier, and as soon as we get the image, it's made less certain by the other possibilities listed.
However, when the strangling occurs, the cardigan is suddenly real. The other items are gone, and a decision has been made: the cardigan. The plastic bag does the strangling, but the sentence structure makes it hard not to believe that the cardigan itself is involved: "the plastic shopping bag from my new cardigan over my head." Because the cardigan is positioned between the bag and Nao's head, it's easy to see the cardigan also "over my head." The sweater has become so concrete that it's implicated in Nao's (imagined) murder.
The sweater is preparing us, of course, for what happens to Nao. But it also sets up the way the entire passage will work throughout the book. An abstract and imagined thing becomes the ghost of an image and then eventually, surprisingly, it comes to life and resonates profoundly.
Allison Wyss has had stories featured in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.