‘What makes a person want so much?’ [book review]

A review of The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Thirteen-year-old Benny Oh is having a tough time. His beloved father, Kenji, a jazz musician, has been killed in an absurd accident to which Benny was witness. His mother, Annabelle, shy and nervous at the best of times, has retreated into herself, neglecting the household and her son as she becomes increasingly overrun by her job of news monitoring (not the best career path for someone of a nervous disposition). Though intelligent, Benny doesn’t fare terribly well in the American school system; he lacks adults he can look up to and has no friends his own age. And to cap it all, he has started hearing voices – objects talk to him in a babel of languages, revealing the thoughts and moods of their original makers. Trying and failing to deal with this new auditory onslaught, Benny is referred to a children’s psychiatry ward.

Cover image - The Book of Form and Emptiness

In The Book of Form and Emptiness, her fourth novel and first work of fiction to appear since 2013’s enormously successful A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki combines sombre themes with deft, light-hearted prose and a cast of memorable characters to create a book that is as generous as it is compelling. Meditating on mental health, growing up, motherhood, social expectations, loneliness and consumerism, she also works in a dizzying array of cultural references and Zen Buddhist teachings. And, in a creative move that requires just a little faith on the part of the reader, The Book of Form and Emptiness is also a love letter to literature, with all its healing and revealing powers.

While several voices compete for space in the novel – all of them given a chance to have their say – one is the guiding force of the narrative: the Book itself. Though effectively a classic intimate third-person narrator, who details the events of Benny’s and Annabelle’s lives in roughly alternating chapters, Ozeki makes things a little bit meta, allowing her novel to speak for itself and even engage with Benny. Some time after he has started hearing voices and been released from a spell in children’s psychiatry, Benny begins seeking refuge in the public library, where one disembodied voice stands out from the rest. This, it turns out, is ‘the Book’, and it is narrating his life story. Having been introduced to this concept from the very beginning of the novel – a long while before Benny finally makes the Book’s acquaintance – the reader is quite comfortable with the situation, able to connect with the characters on an unusual level. Though constantly made aware that they are figures in a novel, we are still able to believe in them and in the magical realism of Ozeki’s world, in which books have feelings – sometimes longing to be human – and the narrative of your own life can help guide you through it.

The Book may be the dominant voice in the novel, yet both Benny and Annabelle have occasion to speak directly to the reader. While Benny’s voice roughly mirrors the trajectory of his character – at first he engages only with the Book, then loses his voice altogether before coming back, stronger and more settled, to address the reader as well – Annabelle’s is slightly veiled in the form of letters written to Aikon, a Zen Buddhist nun whose book on tidying is helping her tackle her hoarding problem. A fictionalised version of Marie Kondō, with a troubled childhood not dissimilar to Annabelle’s own, Aikon becomes the vessel into which Benny’s mother can pour all her woes, a largely silent presence in the novel who only later on becomes a living, breathing, feeling character in her own right.

What with Benny’s voices and Annabelle’s hoarding, we have arrived at one of the key themes of the novel: things. ‘What makes a person want so much?’ is a question that crops up persistently, and while Annabelle’s hoarding is presented sympathetically, the result of attachment issues stemming from childhood abuse and the trauma of bereavement, Ozeki also uses the more light-hearted layer of her prose to poke fun at our obsession with amassing vast quantities of ‘stuff’. A dumpster and a thrift shop play central roles in the novel, while the small house in which Benny and Annabelle live is overflowing not just with objects but with piles of old newspapers and recordings of news programmes: the trappings of Annabelle’s job. This slow, quite literal burying beneath the news is a powerful comment on our always-on society, while the voices Benny hears serve as a metaphor for the way in which rampant consumerism can lead to overwhelming clamour. Even the silence of Aikon’s temple is not immune to noise and stress, much of it provoked by profit-hungry publishers and TV channels.

By contrast, the library in which Benny finds his salvation is a largely peaceful setting populated by several silent figures. Here he develops friendships with the Bottleman, a homeless Slovenian poet and philosopher, and the Aleph – real name Alice – a slightly older girl struggling with a heroin addiction, who nonetheless takes Benny under her wing. Larger than life in many ways, these two figures provide entertainment and profundity in equal measure: Ozeki certainly makes her characters work hard, but always in a way that is believable within the logic of the novel. As Benny falls in love with the Aleph and struggles to keep up with the Bottleman’s teachings (he is a conduit for many of the philosophical and literary references in the novel, two of the main ones being Walter Benjamin and Jorge Luis Borges) Ozeki explores the terrors and wonders of growing up in prose that is both compassionate and playful.

This, the prevailing tone of the novel, is what makes The Book of Form and Emptiness such a delight to read. Though it does indeed concern itself with ‘the gravity of being human’, never flippant about the very real problems each of the characters faces, it does so with a slightly wry smile, as though urging us not to take things too seriously. Many of the challenges Benny and Annabelle must overcome are caused, after all, by forces external to them. Once they begin to let go of consumerism and the pressure society exerts on them, listening instead more closely to their internal voices, they move gradually towards the lightness that has been constantly present in the novel, even if not always attainable.

It could sound saccharine, but this is where Ozeki’s skill lies – as in the chapter in which a motley crew of homeless library patrons help Annabelle to de-clutter her home. There is great potential here for things to become cloying, but instead the feel-good nature of the scene is undercut by droll humour and an abrupt ending that is entirely of the real world. Again and again, Ozeki makes use of language and sharp observation to convey the ironies of life, all the while nudging the reader gently towards acceptance of a profounder message. The form and emptiness referenced in the title aren’t just physical objects and loneliness, but can also be an experience far more fulfilling, akin to the poetry which is also composed of these things.

‘“Without problems, there would be no poems,”’ says the Bottleman to Benji – and, reading this dazzling novel, no line ever seemed truer. Looking closely at the world around her, from the sublime to the ridiculous, the big things to the small, Ozeki has taken various all-too-human problems and reshaped them into something beautiful.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki is published in the UK by Canongate. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

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