“The book of form and emptiness”: the curious side of Ruth Ozeki is still relevant today


An award-winning author with four titles and two films to her credit, Ruth Ozeki’s greatest talent is perhaps her ability to ask the right questions. His fifth novel, “The Book of Form and Emptiness”, shows that his curious side is still relevant today.

The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki
560 pages
VIKING

“I am fascinated by subjective experiences, by unrequited experiences,” says Ozeki. “Is something real because it’s verifiable from the outside, or is it real because I’ve felt and heard it?” What do we think of subjectivity? In the world we live in now, if (an experiment) can’t be empirically verified and counted as a data point, then it’s not real. But I don’t believe so.

On the surface, Ozeki’s novel is about a grieving family struggling to find meaning in the wake of tragedy. But dig deeper and the story is a complex commentary on modern society and the importance it places on material objects, a study of subjectivity and the nature of reality. All the while, it’s a book about the unknown and all-knowing realms of the imagination.

The novel centers on a child named Benny Oh. During his father’s cremation, a jazz musician tragically killed in an accident, 12-year-old Benny hears his father’s voice calling for him. In less than a year, the confused boy hears the voices of many inanimate objects he encounters, from a cabbage in the wood-burning refrigerator used to make his pencil. One of the voices Benny hears is “the book” – the very book we read and the one that tells its story.

Still in mourning, Benny struggles to understand this cacophony of chatter, which led to a brief stint in a pediatric psychiatric ward. Once released, the boy finds refuge in a quiet public library, the books seeming to stifle the clamor in his head. Meanwhile, her mother, Annabelle, amasses material possessions to deal with her own grief and guilt. How these two characters relate to objects is an important part of the novel, providing a focal point for a kaleidoscope of ideas.

“I wanted to write about our relationship with material objects,” says Ozeki. “I was thinking about supply chains and how goods are made and moved. I would ask my students to look at their running shoes and consider all the parts that make up a single shoe, imagine all the materials and work that have been aggregated to make this unique object that they put on every day without reflect. about that.

“He connects to the famous koan of Dogen (13th century Japanese Buddhist priest):” Do insensitive beings speak Dharma (the teachings and training methods of the Buddha)? And so I was thinking about this idea of ​​insensitive 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 is natural to relate sneakers to an ancient koan. Such ideas are prevalent throughout his fiction. Similar to his 2014 novel “A Tale for the Time Being,” which plays with ideas of time and place, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” examines how we occupy, fill and validate space for us. themselves and for those around us.

“I’ve always loved this idea so deeply rooted in Japanese culture, of caring about the things around you, the things in your home, the material objects in your life,” says Ozeki, which explains the wink. obvious to decluttering guru Marie Kondo. in the book. Ozeki notes that she has been “thrilled” by the popularity of Kondo, whose first book, “The Magic of Storage That Changes Your Life,” has sold over 13 million copies worldwide. The author urges people to change their lives by valuing their material possessions and only clinging to objects that bring true joy.

The Kondo wink is just Ozeki’s way of intelligently weaving elements of our current reality. She also references the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the California wildfires in a story that features different ways of looking at the world with her wide array of characters: a serious psychiatrist, a homeless poet, an intellectual in escape, a compassionate librarian, a tidy monk. and “the Book” itself. There’s even a cameo from Ozeki, quietly observing and recording in the pages.

Although the novel’s 560 pages took over eight years to write, Ozeki says the process went organically.

“I have a very simple way of writing,” she says. “I just let things in when they appear. And so in this particular book, because I was writing about things and our relationship to objects, I had a rule for myself that when an interesting object came into my life, I put it in the book and I saw what was going on. Snow globes, the writings of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, and fortune cookies are just a few of the things that have found their place in history.

For Ozeki, writing is a way to share his point of view – his experiences, his creativity, his sense of reality – with compassion and humanity.

“I don’t understand why lived experience is ignored in society, and I mean that as a person who has a very rich, subjective and experiential life,” she says. “As a writer, it’s my job, isn’t it? The company decided that it was OK for me to invent things, put them in books, and then send them out into the world, even though they’re not real. While it’s not OK if you have the subjective experience of hearing a voice, outside of your head, talking to you, something that is actually quite common, especially after you have lost a loved one.

When we spend time in the world of Ozeki, what is empirically provable and quantifiable becomes less important, and the truths of our inner life become stronger, if only we can honor those voices.

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