Ruth Ozeki’s new novel explores broad themes with humor and empathy

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Ruth Ozeki’s novels have always been more than plot and character development. From the dangers of industrial agriculture and meat production, to the independence of women, to the nature of time, Ozeki has used books such as “My Year of Meats” and “A Tale for the Time Being” as wide canvases to examine a range of ideas.

In his latest work, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” (Viking), Ozeki really pulled the stops. From the basic setting of a troubled teenager mourning the death of his father, she has fashioned a comical yet poignant story that touches on everything from mental health and climate change, to our attachment to possessions and to the overabundance of the consumer society, to the power of books and the interdependence of so many things.

Ozeki, who lives in Northampton and teaches English language and literature at Smith College, says this approach is essentially a function of her writing process, which allows reality “to seep into my fictional world.” The walls between the two are quite porous… and that can allow the story to evolve in different directions and embrace different ideas.

In a recent telephone interview, Ozeki, herself a Smith graduate (class of 1980), said her new novel was also shaped by a number of her own experiences, including being a Zen Buddhist priest – a practice that also informed her third novel, “A Tale for the Time Being”, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

In “The Book of Form and Emptiness” she tried something new: she makes the book itself a character, giving it a voice and letting it riff on other books, the mutual needs of humans. and books, and characters from the novel as well.

“Books have their own point of view,” said Ozeki. “If you read, you participate in the voice of this book and the experience it presents. I wanted to play with this idea ”in the new novel.

As the Book said at one time: “The world has given you eyes to see the beauty of its mountains and rivers, and ears to hear the music of its winds and sea, and the voice with which you need to say it. We, the books, are proof of that. We are here to help you.”

Benny’s story

Finding and providing help are the big themes of Ozeki’s new novel. It starts on a tragicomic note as Kenji, beloved musician father of 12-year-old Benny, is accidentally hit by a truckload of chickens in an alley behind their house after passing out from drugs and the alcohol.

Over the next year, Benny begins to hear voices. First, he thinks he heard Kenji; then household items, from shoes to leftovers in the fridge, seem to speak to her. He can seldom distinguish their words, but he can sense their emotional content.

Finally, these voices, sometimes more distinct, follow Benny everywhere, including at school, where he is already isolated; his mother, Annabelle, is white, but Kenji was part Japanese, part Korean, and his classmates laugh at Benny about his mixed race status. When Benny’s voice issues send him to a mental hospital for a while, he becomes even more of a target after he returns to school: “Loco! Loony! Mental dwarf! Freak! “

Annabelle, a well-meaning woman, has her own problems. She is unable to help her son, who is moving further and further away, and she develops a serious hoarding problem, turning their tiny apartment and outdoor land into a dumping ground for mounds of garbage; her owner threatens to be evicted if she doesn’t clean up the mess.

And Annabelle’s job – monitoring multiple news sites for different companies – could be cut due to budget cuts. She finds herself more and more paralyzed.

Benny seeks refuge from school and home in the regional library – the story takes place in an unnamed town in the Pacific Northwest – where he befriends a few other outcasts, a homeless Slovenian poet. shelter called the B-Man and a former psychiatric hospital patient colleague, an older, punk teenage girl who is a talented artist and calls herself The Aleph (the title of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges), although her real name be Alice.

Benny’s attempts to figure out why things speak to him, and the conversations he has with the Book itself, create a lot of humor. As she did with one of the narrators of “A Tale for the Time Being”, Ozeki does a great job of channeling a teenager: Benny’s voice is direct and earthy, cutting the mess in his mind.

“I mean, it’s not totally surprising when people doing crazy stuff, ”he says,“ but when everyday items, and clothes, and even your dinner, start acting like they’re in a Disney movie, with mouths and eyes and attitudes and free wills, finally you have to understand something is wrong. “

Recognize our common humanity

The “Book of Form and Emptiness” also has its hard edges. Ozeki says the new novel and “A Tale for the Time Being” essentially share “the same DNA,” as both are built around teenage characters struggling with emotional and mental health issues as they attempt to give a meaning to an increasingly chaotic and often hostile world. .

She said that some experiences she had just over 20 years ago, around a year after her father died, also informed the new novel.

“I was folding the laundry or doing other chores around the house and I could hear his voice,” she said. “I heard him clear his throat and call my name, and I turned – but he wasn’t there. It was so fast, and I wondered if I had really heard it, or if it was in my head.

A question from an audience member while reading a book for “A Tale for the Time Being” gave Ozeki more to think about. “A father raised his hand and asked me if my characters were coming to me as an outside voice, or if they were developing in my mind. It was an interesting question and I wanted to explore it further.

In a fundamental sense, the novel is a call to recognize our shared humanity and to expand the definition of what is considered “normal” as opposed to “crazy”: “I think we need to change perspective and think of a specter. wider. “

That Ozeki presents these ideas with humor and with a lot of empathy for his characters, brings you closer to the story. Annabelle, for example, has many snow globes among her extensive collection of knickknacks. The Aleph makes his own variety of these tiny spheres, but his own exhibits industrial and environmental burn charts, where a jolt can cause coal soot to fall rather than snow. It’s a way of suggesting what could be really crazy – like, say, a lifestyle of perpetual “growth” that destroys the planet.

Laughing, Ozeki said the inspiration for the name “The Aleph” first came to her when she walked Main Street in Northampton a few years ago and passed a teenage girl “with slightly dyed hair. crazy people, and I heard her say on her cell phone, ‘Don’t call me Alice, my name is Athena!’ I had to integrate it into the story.

The author is preparing for a book tour – on Zoom, that is. But she’ll be making an appearance in person tomorrow, September 23, at the Odyssey Bookstore at South Hadley at 7 p.m. She will be joined by her longtime friend Carole DeSanti, a fellow teacher and writer of Smith and former editor of Viking who was one of the first editors to work on “The Book of Form and Emptiness”.

“Carole has helped me a lot as a writer and a friend,” said Ozeki, who notes that the two first met in the late 1970s as students of Smith. “I’m lucky to have him in my life.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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