Fiction and familiarity

My impression is that many people read fiction as an escape from their day-to-day. I am not those people. I like to have enough of a non-fictional toehold on a story to be able to judge its verisimilitude. I don’t want to be the reader analog to the millions of people under the impression that the legal system is in any way similar to Law & Order or CSI.

Given my interests and experiences, my toehold criterion seems to leave me with only so many fictional reading options to choose from. But early this spring I came across one short story and one novel fitting it to a T.


Will Mackin’s New Yorker piece “Kattekoppen” is narrated by a member of a Tier 1 Special Operations unit in Logar Province. Mackin provides next to no biographical details regarding the narrator, who expresses almost no opinions or emotions and is blessed with preternatural powers of observation. This makes for an eerie and magnetic character.

I was drawn to the story because several of the narrator’s observations describe things I have experienced in my own life but which I had not seen portrayed in fiction (or non-fiction, really). Take, for instance, the description of the attitude taken towards food in a place where you can’t just pop out to the corner store:

Apparently, Levi had loved these candies as a kid, and his mother was under the impression that he still loved them. But he didn’t. So he set the Kattekoppen on the shelf by the door, where we kept boxes of unwanted food.

Perhaps “unwanted” is too strong a word. Better to say that no one wanted that particular type of food at that particular time. Everyone knew that a time would come, born of boredom, curiosity, or need, when we would want some Carb Boom, squirrel jerky, or a Clue bar. But, until that time, the food sat on the shelf.

Or of the effects of sleep deprivation:

There was no time to sleep. My fingernails stopped growing. My beard turned white. Cold felt hot and hot felt cold.

I practically jumped up and down when I read the part about fingernails. I may even have said aloud, “Yes, that does happen!”

Finally, there is a wonderful description of synesthesia brought on by sunlight on snow—covering everything was a pristine layer of snow, which dawn had turned pink—something I have seen a lot of myself. I have no experiential knowledge whatsoever of Afghanistan or of life as a Navy SEAL, but the details which did ring true with my own experiences opened me up to the story.

sunlight snow

Will Mackin has clearly taken in a number of scenes such as this one.


Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being is narrated by two characters. Naoko is a Japanese schoolgirl who, importantly, has spent her pre-teen and early teenage years in the United States. Ruth is an American novelist living and working on an island off the Pacific Coast of Canada.

I was drawn to the story because I had previously read Ozeki’s short story “The Anthropologists’ Kids,” told from the perspective of the son of a Yale faculty member and clearly drawing upon Ozeki’s own New Haven childhood. Ozeki has said elsewhere that she created the story to “tak[e] the piss out of the academy … in the most respectful way.”

I know Ozeki’s father Floyd Lounsbury’s work very well via my focus on Iroquoian studies. He was and will always be the dean of Iroquoian linguistics (should you be wondering about his affiliation with an anthropology rather than a linguistics department, he came of age at a time before the work undertaken by anthropological linguists had been shifted to linguistics departments and later supplanted by linguistic anthropology) and also did work of note in my real wheelhouse, kinship.

I learned of Ozeki’s novel via an NPR interview in which she mentions Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s book Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms as an inspiration and source for A Tale for the Time Being. This sold me on reading A Tale for the Time Being, as Ohnuki-Tierney has been a favorite writer of mine for a while. When I did pick up the novel Ozeki’s comfort in utilizing Ohnuki-Tierney’s work as well as other anthropological concepts was striking, though not surprising given that she is to the anthropological manor born.

A Tale for the Time Being is a story about the creative process which involves multiple universe theory, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese youth culture. I know very little about any of the four. But the novel had plenty of other hooks for me. I enjoyed the textual presentation. There are footnotes, appendices, and a scholarly apparatus which make it look and feel less foreign to my anthropologically-conditioned reading eye. In addition, as someone possessing some experience with editing I enjoyed the choice of presenting Nao’s narrative as something of an edited manuscript.

What I enjoyed most about the novel was Nao’s so clear as to be painful self- and social awareness, qualities springing from being cultivated within multiple but never accepted by any social environments. Which is pretty much what Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is about, a film I really liked despite always having been a Marvel guy and finding Superman the most boring superhero ever. Perhaps not coincidentally, superpowers also find a place in the narrative of Ozeki’s novel.

Matthew Timothy Bradley


Chafe, Wallace L. 2000. “Floyd Glenn Lounsbury.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 144 (2): [226]–29.

Mackin, Will. 2013. “Kattekoppen.” The New Yorker, (March 11):60–64.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 2002. Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ozeki, Ruth. 2013. A Tale for the Time Being. New York: Viking.
—————– 2006. “The Anthropologists’ Kids.” In Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience, ed. by Chandra Prasad. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

6 thoughts on “Fiction and familiarity

  1. While many people read fiction as an escape from life, many experience it as an escape into life (and I forget who first said that or I’d cite it). That is, fiction can be a way to learn about people, places, and experiences in a way that is more tactile and engaging of emotions than much non-fiction is. This can happen with fairly formulaic genre fiction as well as with literary fiction. And of course “world building” (in an almost anthropological sense) is something many novelists do to provide a carnival mirror of our worlds.

    Richard Gerrig (Experiencing Narrative Worlds) had one finding that sticks with me – it seems we don’t shelve fiction separately from non-fiction in our brains, though if we read fiction about something we are very familiar with, we may discard things that are contrary to our understanding of reality. If we’re reading about something new to us, though, we have a tendency to stick bits of it away in our brains along with things we read in the newspaper or learned in a class.

    The anthology of short fiction you cite sounds interesting – and possibly a good example of the ways readers may pick up on subtleties of experience that would be harder to grasp from expository prose.

    Now to add A Tale for the Time Being to my longer-than-life-expectancy to-be-read list ….

  2. While many people read fiction as an escape from life, many experience it as an escape into life (and I forget who first said that or I’d cite it). That is, fiction can be a way to learn about people, places, and experiences in a way that is more tactile and engaging of emotions than much non-fiction is.

    I understand that to have been Ella Deloria’s intent with Waterlily.

    […] it seems we don’t shelve fiction separately from non-fiction in our brains […]

    I believe that is at the center of this and my previous posts about non-fiction vis- à-vis fiction (and thank you for the Gerrig reference!). I suppose my default is to avoid non-fiction not grounded in something I know well because I find it difficult to enjoy in the absence of being able to sort out those “contrary to [my] understanding of reality” bits. I very much enjoyed Terrence Malick’s The New World, for example. The portrayals of the Powhatan/Jamestown and Pocahontas/John Smith interactions were not accurate, but I knew enough to appreciate what was accurate about the film and to have a sense of what Malick was trying to get at.

    The anthology of short fiction you cite sounds interesting – and possibly a good example of the ways readers may pick up on subtleties of experience that would be harder to grasp from expository prose.

    That does seem to be a hard topic to get across. I sometimes find anthropologists who have returned from extended fieldwork absolutely insufferable in their discussion of culture shock. What grates on me is not their narration of the phenomenon in and of itself, but rather the fact that it almost always exist outside of a good framework for comparison. There are many ways to feel and be out of place socially and to oneself. Perhaps a topic for a post of its own. ☺

    Now to add A Tale for the Time Being to my longer-than-life-expectancy to-be-read list ….

    It demanded a lot of me but I found the ratio of work to reward a good one. Definitely better than a slog through Spivakian prose, that’s for sure.

  3. If you like Ruth Ozeki’s writing, you mustn’t miss My Year of Meats. As an industry insider who has worked for a Japanese advertising agency, I found it excruciatingly funny as well as ethnographically valid in all important details.

  4. I read All Over Creation while waiting for a copy to A Tale for the Time Being to arrive. I was entertained by it—there were a lot of sex scenes, for one thing. The book is about reproduction, so that makes sense. As someone who has always been around children I feel quite in the dark as to the source of the yearning for a child that occupies so many people’s lives. One of the characters in All Over Creation is unable to carry a pregnancy to term and ends up spending time caring for a friend’s infant and the portrayal provided me with some insight.

    A Tale for the Time Being is in a different league, though. There’s so much comfort with the subject matter and the prose is so much tighter (Ozeki rewrote substantial portions of the novel after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami). I will have to give My Year of Meats a read at some point to see how it compares to the two.

  5. Rather than reading Ozeki’s book, “A Tale for the Time Being”, I listened to it. The reading is done by Ozeki herself and gives the book a much deeper feeling for Ozeki’s connection to the material. This was from Audible.com if you are interested.

    I also would like to recommend “For the Time Being” by Annie Dillard. This book of musings about life and its meanings seems to me quite fitting as a complement to Ozeki’s book. Indeed Ozeki’s book showed me that Dillard was also writing about “time beings”. (I prefer Dillard’s book as audio book as well.)

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