Ruth Ozeki spoke about her latest novel, The Book of Form and Void, Winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction at the Provincetown Book Festival last weekend. It was her first visit to Provincetown since college, she said.
The novel is a conversation between its 14-year-old protagonist, Benny Oh, and the book that tells his story. That wasn’t originally Ozeki’s plan, although she tends not to make plans for writing. “There’s a split among writers,” she says, “between planners and ‘trouser makers,’ who fly by the seat of my pants.” She says she runs with the latter.
Ozeki began writing the book in the third person, but she says that perspective was interrupted when Benny began arguing with the omniscient narrator. “The dialogue started from there,” Ozeki says.
After his father’s death, in the first few pages, Benny begins to hear objects speaking to him: the screeching of a Christmas ball, the rolling of a window pane and the sarcasm of a teapot become the soundtrack of his everyday life. The voices become increasingly cacophonous as his mother, Annabelle, copes with her grief by hoarding. And out of this noise of objects rises the voice of the book itself, open and resolute.
While Benny and the book compete for narrative power, the book also provides Benny with a “story to hold on to,” Ozeki says while mourning the loss of his father.
To Ozeki, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and National Book Award by portraying the book as a character who gave her permission to “indulge in that tortuous, sensual nature of language.” She says that “there’s a sort of jealousy about the book…because it doesn’t have senses like we do.” In arcs and insistences, the book’s speech strives for sensibility.
This isn’t the first time ozeki have brought a book to life. A story for the time her 2013 novel, which she refers to as “siblings.” The Book of Form and Void, tells the story of an animated diary that carries his own voice along with that of a teenager, Nao Yasutani. Nao’s diary becomes the focus of the text when Ruth, author and the novel’s second protagonist, finds it washed ashore in British Columbia. What the diary lacks in sensory capacity, like Benny’s book, it makes up for in linguistic possibilities.
Ozeki’s work conjures up a dreamscape that oscillates on the border between the magical and the real. Books suddenly appear in their characters’ lives and shopping carts, reflecting their perception that “books find their readers” in our world too. In Benny and Annabelle’s house, word magnets are arranged on the refrigerator to form new poems. With words so convincingly alive, her work exists beyond the confines of skepticism.
While writing The Book of Form and Void, Ozeki wanted to incorporate randomness, but realized she couldn’t force it. So she created a “rule that would allow for chance”: whenever an object came into her life, she wrote it in the manuscript. When Ozeki’s editor brought her a souvenir snow globe with a sea turtle on it, Annabelle began collecting them. And as snow globes were lined up on Annabelle’s shelf, ozeki staged an investigation into accumulation and the way we care for our belongings.
In some cases, ozeki shapes language like a potter does clay; in others she creates euphony that borders on the musical. Benny learns of his father’s death when “a high, thin scream rang out from the alley, uncoiled like a rope, like a living tentacle, slithered into his window and hooked him, dragged him out of bed”. For ozeki, words have the power of possession and movement. They reach through tonal art and bring to life the objects that speak to Benny and bring them to life themselves.
“Books seem like voices to me,” Ozeki says. It differs from the traditional way of listening, she adds, in that it happens internally. It’s an experience that seems inseparable from her practice as a Zen Buddhist priestess. She says the two spiritual pursuits — writing and Zen Buddhism — used to feel like they were vying for time, but now she “sees them as a synergistic whole.”
Ozeki did a lot of research while writing the novel: Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of libraries affects the environment and the way their characters think, and an investigation by the Hearing Voices Network led Ozeki to consider the differing responses to those who hear muses (and be celebrated). and those who “hear voices” (often treated with medication).
“‘Normal’ is a construct with a narrow semantic field,” Ozeki says, and part of her plan is to expand it. As the voices of objects weave in and out and their characters learn to listen, Ozeki explores how inanimate stored traces of life can come together to fill the empty space of grief.
About the eight years it took her to write The Book of Form and Void, and the year that has passed since its release, ozeki says there has been a “magical transmission.” The words came to her and she wrote them down and then there was a book: a being “of form and emptiness”. Once a book has been shipped, a relationship between author and reader begins to form. And this rapport also determines the plot of her book, in which Benny negotiates the right to tell his own story.
“We’re going to be collaborators,” she told her audience at the Provincetown library on Saturday. The book “comes alive because you engage in it” – and that’s why there are so many versions of it The Book of Form and Void as there are people who have read it.