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