Life, love, loss and the power of imagination: Ruth Ozeki’s new novel explores broad themes with humor and empathy

  • Ruth Ozeki’s new novel explores a number of issues — mental health, climate change, the pull of possessions — and also includes a “talking” book.

  • Novelist Ruth Ozeki has taught writing and literature at Smith College since 2015.  Gazette file photo

  • Ruth Ozeki, a Smith College graduate, has taught writing and literature at the school since 2015.  Gazette file photo

  • Ozeki says her new book “shares the same DNA” with her 2013 novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” which was a finalist for the Booker Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. 

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2021

Ruth Ozeki’s novels have always been about 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 broad canvases to examine a range of ideas.

In her newest work, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” (Viking), Ozeki has really pulled out the stops. From the basic framework of a troubled teenage boy mourning the death of his father, she’s fashioned a story both comic and poignant that looks at everything from mental health to climate change, to our attachment to possessions and the overall glut of consumer society, to the power of books and the interconnectedness of so many things.

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

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

In “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” she’s 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 the characters in the novel as well.

“Books have their own point of view,” Ozeki said. “If you’re reading, you’re participating in the voice of that book and the experience it lays out. I wanted to play with that idea” in the new novel.

As the Book puts it at one point, “The world has given you the eyes to see the beauty of its mountains and rivers, and the ears to hear the music of its winds and sea, and the voice you need to tell it. We books are evidence that this is so. We are here to help you.”

Benny’s tale

Finding and providing help are big themes in Ozeki’s new novel. It begins on a tragicomic note as Kenji, the beloved musician father of 12-year-old Benny, is accidentally run over by a chicken truck in an alley behind their home after he’s passed out from drugs and drink.

Over the ensuing year-plus, Benny begins to hear voices. First he thinks he hears Kenji; then household objects, from shoes to leftovers in the refrigerator, seem to speak to him. He can rarely make out their words, but he can sense their emotional content.

Eventually those voices, sometimes more distinct, follow Benny everywhere, including in school, where he’s already isolated; his mother, Annabelle, is white, but Kenji was part Japanese and part Korean, and classmates taunt Benny about his mixed-race status. When Benny’s problems with voices send him to a psychiatric hospital for a spell, he becomes even more of a target after he returns to school: “Loco! Loony! Mental midget! Freak!”

Annabelle, a well-meaning woman, has her own issues. She’s unable to help her son, who’s turning increasingly distant, and she’s developing a serious hoarding problem, turning their small apartment and grounds outside into a dump site for mounds of junk; her landlord is threatening eviction if she doesn’t clean up the mess.

And Annabelle’s job — monitoring multiple news sites for different companies — might be eliminated due to budget cuts. She finds herself increasingly paralyzed.

Benny seeks refuge from school and home in the regional library — the story is set in an unnamed Pacific Northwest city — where he’s befriended by a couple of fellow outcasts, a homeless Slovenian poet called the B-Man and a former fellow patient from the psychiatric hospital, a punked-out older teen who’s a talented artist and calls herself The Aleph (the title of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges), though her real name is Alice.

Benny’s attempts to understand why things are speaking to him, and the conversations he has with the Book itself, make for plenty of broad humor. As she did with a narrator in “A Tale for the Time Being,” Ozeki does an excellent job channeling a teenager: Benny’s voice is direct and earthy, cutting through the clutter in his mind.

“I mean, it’s not totally surprising when people do crazy sh*t,” he says, “but when everyday objects, and clothes, and even your dinner, start acting like they’re in a Disney movie, with mouths and eyes and attitudes and free wills, eventually you have to figure something’s wrong.”

Common humanity

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

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

“I would be folding laundry or doing some other chore around the house, and I would hear his voice,” she said. “I’d hear him clear his throat and call my name, and I’d turn around — but he wasn’t there. It was so quick, and I’d wonder if I actually heard him speak, or if it was in my head.”

A question from an audience member at a reading for “A Tale for the Time Being” gave Ozeki more food for thought. “A dad raised his hand and asked me if my characters came to me as an outside voice, or whether they developed in my mind. It was an interesting question, and I wanted to investigate it further.”

In a basic sense, the novel is a call for recognizing our shared humanity and broadening the definition of what’s considered “normal” as opposed to “crazy”: “I think we need to shift our perspective and think of a wider spectrum.”

That Ozeki presents these ideas with humor, and with much empathy for her characters, draws you closer to the story. Annabelle, for instance, has many snow globes among her collection of knickknacks. The Aleph makes her own variety of these small spheres, but hers feature tableaus of industrial and environmental blight, where a shake can cause coal soot rather than snow to fall. It’s one way of suggesting what might really be nuts — like, say, a way of life predicated on perpetual “growth” that’s destroying the planet.

With a laugh, Ozeki said the inspiration for the name “The Aleph” first came to her when she was walking down Main Street in Northampton some years ago and passed a teenage girl “with kind of crazy dyed hair, and I heard her say into her cellphone, ‘Don’t call me Alice — my name is Athena!’ I had to get that into the story.”