An award-winning author with four titles and two film credits under her belt, Ruth Ozeki’s greatest talent may be her ability to ask the right questions. Her fifth novel, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” demonstrates that her inquisitive side is still on point.
“I’m fascinated by subjective experiences, by unshared experiences,” Ozeki says. “Is something real because it’s externally verifiable, or is it real because I felt it and heard it? What do we think about subjectivity? In the world that we live in now, if (an experience) can’t be empirically verified and counted as a data point then it’s not real. But I don’t believe that.”
On the surface, Ozeki’s novel is about a grief-stricken family struggling to find meaning in the aftermath of a tragedy. But dig deeper and the story is an intricately layered commentary on modern society and the significance it puts on material objects, a study on subjectivity and the nature of reality. All the while, it’s a book about the unknown, all-knowing realms of the imagination.
The novel centers on a child named Benny Oh. At the cremation of his father, a jazz musician who was tragically killed in an accident, 12-year-old Benny hears his Dad’s voice calling out to him. Within a year, the confused boy hears the voices of many inanimate objects he encounters, from a cabbage in the refrigerator to the wood used to make his pencil. One of the voices Benny hears is “the Book” — the very book we are reading and the one that is telling his story.
Still in mourning, Benny struggles to understand this cacophony of chatter, leading to a brief stay at a pediatric psych ward. Once released, the boy finds refuge in a quiet public library, the books seeming to mute the clamor in his head. Meanwhile his mother, Annabelle, hoards material possessions to deal with her own grief and guilt. How these two characters relate to objects forms an important focus to the novel, providing a center point for a kaleidoscope of ideas.
“I wanted to write about our relationship with material objects,” Ozeki says. “I was thinking about supply chains and how goods are manufactured and moved around. I’d ask my students to look at their running shoes and to consider all the component parts in the one shoe, to imagine all the materials and work that has been aggregated in order to make this single object that they put on every day without thinking about it.
“It connects to (13th-century Japanese Buddhist priest) Dogen’s famous koan, ‘Do insentient beings speak the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings and training methods)?’ And so I was thinking about this idea of insentient beings, what are they and what can they teach us?”
For Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist monk and professor of literature and creative writing at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, it’s natural to relate athletic shoes to an ancient koan. Such ideas are rife throughout her fiction. Similar to her 2014 novel “A Tale for the Time Being,” which plays with ideas of time and place, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” considers how we occupy, fill and validate space for ourselves and those around us.
“I’ve always loved this idea that’s so deep in Japanese culture, to care about the things around you, the things in your home, the material objects in your life,” Ozeki says, which explains the obvious nod to decluttering guru Marie Kondo in the book. Ozeki notes that she was “thrilled” by the popularity of Kondo, whose first book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” sold more than 13 million copies worldwide. The author urges people to change their lives by assessing their material possessions and only holding on to the items that bring true joy.
The Kondo nod is just one way Ozeki cleverly weaves in elements of our current reality. She also references the 2016 U.S. presidential election and California wildfires in a narrative that offers up various ways of looking at the world with its wide cast of characters: an earnest psychiatrist, a homeless poet, an intellectual runaway, a compassionate librarian, a tidying monk and “the Book” itself. There’s even a cameo from Ozeki, quietly observing and recording within the pages.
Although the novel’s 560 pages took more than eight years to write, Ozeki says the process unfolded organically.
“I have a very promiscuous way of writing,” she says. “I just let things in when they appear. And so in this book in particular, because I was writing about things and our relationship with objects, I had a rule for myself that when an interesting object entered my life, I would put it in the book and see what happened.” Snow globes, the writings of German philosopher Walter Benjamin and fortune cookies are just a few of the items that found their way into the story.
For Ozeki, writing is a way to share her perspective — her experiences, her creativity, her sense of reality — with compassion and humanity.
“I don’t understand why lived experience is discounted in society, and I mean that as somebody who has a very rich, subjective, experiential life,” she says. “As a writer, that’s my job, right? Society has decided that it’s OK for me to make things up, put them into books and then send them out into the world, even though they’re not real. Whereas, it’s not OK if you have the subjective experience of hearing a voice, outside your head, talking to you, something that is actually quite common, especially after losing a loved one.”
When spending time in Ozeki’s world, the empirically provable and quantifiable become less important, and the truths of our inner lives grow louder, if only we can honor those voices.
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