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Vibrant matters

Two philosophical perspectives are at play in the novel “The book of form & emptiness”, informing Ruth Ozeki’s telling of a story about a young boy, Benny, whose father dies in a meaningless accident.


Ruth Ozeki. Photo by Kris Krug /Flickr. Creative Commons LIcense.

Sean Sheehan


Benny and his mother Annabelle are left to cope with their grief, with Benny hearing voices from birds and inanimate objects while Annabelle struggles with job security, low self-esteem and a tendency to hoard stuff in their house.

One suspects the author has read Jane Bennett’s exposition of  ‘vital materiality’ in “Vibrant Matter”, a marvellous treatise that pushes back against anthropocentrism by blurring the distinction between living and non-living things. Ozeki makes a book -and by implication her own novel- a character who explains how before the Anthropocene and even further back, before humans began to colonize and instrumentalize nature, there was just matter. In the absence of hierarchies and hegemonies, everything mattered and Benny is receptive to this dimension of entangled being as an alive assemblage.

Social services staff, however, can only see a boy traumatized by his father’s death, adding to Annabel’s difficulties.

Zen Buddhist thoughts also percolate through the novel and their putative healing powers find expression in the value of decluttering.

Annabel emails a fictional Japanese writer of a self-help book on the subject and, while Marie Kondo immediately comes to mind, Ozeki injects some punch into the topic with this description of its approach: The little book was woke to the fucked-updness of carbon-based consumer capitalism… A person’s clutter wasn’t the result of laziness, procrastination… It was a socioeconomic and even philosophical problem. One of Marxian alienation and commodity fetishism.”

This sounds good but the novel is better at saying than showing it and is itself in need of some decluttering.

Mundane events are laboriously charted, the tone verges on the preachy at times and some of the narrative’s set scenes feel programmed to appear where they do. But when her prose is trimmed down, Ozeki’s writing can soar and reach poetic heights.

Towards the end of the story, Benny’s eco experience of vibrant matter becomes visionary (inspired perhaps by the dying words of Rutger Hauger’s character in Blade Runner):

Photo: Pixabay

“Container ships glittering on a moonlit night off the coast of Alaska.

Pyramids of sulphur, rising yellow in the mist. The plundered moon

and all its craters; globes and stars and asteroids; a jet-black crow with

a diamond tiara… Fires rage as the redwoods burn; and in the deep

ocean, a pilot whale carries her dead baby on its nose, while sea turtles

weep briny tears into nets of plastic.”

“The book of form & emptiness”, by Ruth Ozeki, is published by Cannongate.

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