Ruth Ozeki spoke about her latest novel, The book of shape and space Winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Literature, at the Provincetown Book Festival last weekend. She said it was her first visit to Provincetown since college.
The novel is a conversation between its 14-year-old protagonist, Penny Oh, and the book that tells his story. This was not initially Ozeki’s plan, though she tends not to plan to write. “There is a division between writers,” she says, “between the planners and the ‘shorts,’ who fly on the seat of their pants.” She says she works with the latter.
Ozeki began writing the book in the third person, but says that angle was cut off when Penny started arguing with the knowing narrator. “From there the dialogue emerged,” Ozeki says.
After his father’s death within the first few pages, Penny started hearing things speak to him: the scream of Christmas decorations, the drooping of window panes, and the snarl of a teapot became the soundtrack to his daily life. Voices grow more discord as his mother Annabelle copes with her grief through hoarding. From the noise of things emanates the voice of the book itself, frank and resolute.
While Penny and the book vie for narrative power, the book also offers Penny “a story to stick to,” Ozeki says, grieving the loss of his father.
To Ozeki, who was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize and a National Book Award, the book as a character gave her permission to “immerse myself in that curvy and sensual nature of language.” “The book has a kind of human envy…because it doesn’t feel the way we do,” she says. In parentheses and insistence, the discourse of the book seeks the capacity to feel.
This isn’t the first time Ozeki has brought a book to life. A tale for the present Her 2013 novel, which she describes as a “brother” The book of shape and space She tells the story of an animated magazine that carries her voice alongside that of teenage Nao Yasutani. Nao’s diary becomes central to the text when Ruth, the author and second heroine of the novel, finds she has been washed ashore in British Columbia. Like Penny’s book, what the journal lacks in sensory ability it makes up for in linguistic possibility.
Ozeki’s work evokes a dream landscape that teeters on the edge between the magical and the real. Books suddenly appear in the lives of their characters and shopping carts, reflecting her perception that in our world, too, “books find their readers.” At Penny and Annabelle’s house, the word magnet on the fridge rearranges itself into new poems. With the words convincingly saturated with life, their work is beyond doubt.
while writing The book of shape and space Ozeki wanted to incorporate randomness but realized that wasn’t an element she could force. Therefore, she created a “rule of allowing randomness to appear”: any time something came into her life, she would write it down in manuscript. When Ozeki’s editor brought her a snow globe containing a sea turtle as a keepsake, Annabelle began collecting it. As snowballs line Annabelle’s shelf, Ozeki investigates the backlog and the way we care about our things.
In some cases, Ozeki crafts language like a potter who makes clay. In other cases, it creates euphoria that approaches a musical. Penny learned of his father’s death when “a loud, gentle shriek rose from the alley, rolled like a rope, like living tentacles, crept into his window and pinned him down, and pulled him out of the bed.” For Ozeki, words have the powers of possession and movement. They hold the lightness of the voice, bringing to life the things that speak to Penny and come alive.
“Books come to me as sounds,” Ozeki says. She adds that it differs from the traditional type of hearing in that it occurs internally. It is an experience that seems inseparable from her practice as a Zen Buddhist priestess. She says the spiritual endeavour – writing and Zen Buddhism – used to feel like they were competing for her time, but now she “views them both as synergistic.”
Ozeki did extensive research while writing the novel: Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of libraries informs their place and the way their characters think, and an investigation into the network of hearing voices led Ozeki to consider the disparity in reactions towards those who hear ideas (and are celebrated) and those who “hear voices.” (who often end up in therapy.)
“Normal is a construct with a narrow semantic field,” Ozeki says, and part of her job is to expand it. As things sound in and out, and her characters learn to listen, Ozeki explores how the traces of life, stored abnormally, can come together to fill the empty space. from mourning.
Over the eight years it took me to write The book of shape and space In the year since its publication, Ozeki says, there has been a “magical transformation.” She came up with the words and wrote them, and then there was a book: the entity of Form and Void. Once the book is sent, the relationship between the writer and the reader begins. And that connection is also what guides the plot of her book, as Penny negotiates the right to tell his story.
“We’ve become collaborators,” she told her audience at the Provincetown Library on Saturday. The book “comes alive because you invest in yourself” – and because of that, there are many versions The book of shape and space Where someone has read it.