More than ever, I feel like I lack the ability to focus. I’m always jostling my leg up and down, I’m always gnawing on the end of my pens, I’m always doodling into the margins of my notebooks. There’s always something to keep me occupied.
It seems that I am not the only one who needs the constant bustle of background distraction. In his novel No-No Boy, John Okada continually narrates the stream of his characters’ background actions, emphasizing the undercurrent of anxiety and avoidance that runs through the work.
When Ichiro first returns home and speaks with his father, he watches his father make tea, drink it, then immediately rise to rinse the cup. Ichiro identifies this restless series of actions, stating “He’d never realized how nervous a man his father was. The old man had been constantly doing something every minute since he had come” (Okada 10). By associating constant action with nervousness, Okada builds a connection between them.
Ichiro too commits one of these minor actions: smoking. Immediately after expressing his frustration with his father’s need for distraction, he smokes one cigarette, then “Using the butt of the first cigarette, Ichiro lit another” (Okada 11). This action fills the background of Ichiro’s conversation with his father and the following conversation with his mother. Later, Ichiro retreats to his bedroom where, unable to sit in silence, lies in bed “fighting with his burden, lighting one cigarette after another” (Okada 12). Ichiro’s drive for minor action persists through the text. Later, as he ponders his mother, “he crushed the stub of a cigarette into an ash tray filled with many other stubs and reached for the package to get another” (Okada 17), and even later, when talking to Freddie, he “walked over to the window and lit a cigarette” (Okada 44). Okada’s reference to the repetitive nature of Ichiro’s smoking transforms it into a habitual action, always used as a background distraction to an important thought or interaction. By juxtaposing continually smoking to Ichiro’s uncomfortable moments, Okada links the reference of repetitive minor activity to avoidance.
The need for occupation affects not only Ichiro and his father, but many other characters as well. Freddie also smokes; Kenji drives; Taro plays solitaire. All take up a minor action to keep themselves active.
The repetitive appearance of background motion in the text suggests an anxious undercurrent present in each character. By emphasizing the background, Okada makes clear that no one can sit still. The past remains ever present, forcing the characters to seek distraction.
Okada, John. No-No Boy. 1957. U of Washington P, 2014.