Review by Anna Hollingsworth
Imagine if a book began to narrate your story to you. What kind of voice would that be? Would it have the kind of softness suited to a children’s librarian or to bedtime stories? Or would it be something more at home with Stephen King’s work? For fourteen-year-old Benny Oh, his Book goes from singing to telling him to do things to analyzing its own way of existing in the world. In Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, books are much more than what you’d expect.
It all starts when Benny’s Japanese-Korean jazz musician father dies a gruesome death: he passes out on the street after a weed-fuelled night. When a truck transporting live chicken appears, there is no saving him. So Benny is left alone with his mother, Annabelle. She is struggling to cope. Her job as a news monitor is under threat from technological developments, her home is under threat from her landlady’s less than compassionate son, and her living space is under threat from mountains of stuff as she develops a habit of hoarding. In a life that threatens to fall apart, she finds solace in a book about decluttering by a Japanese Zen Buddhist nun, and soon enters into a one-way email correspondence with her.
Benny, meanwhile, finds that things have begun to talk to him: anything from scissors to letters on a page will fill his world with noise. The most significant voice among them is the Book that narrates Benny’s story. After a stay at a children’s psychiatric unit, he finds that he is ostracized at school and decides to spend his day at the Public Library instead. In this new set of circumstances, he discovers a new circle of friends: there is The Aleph, an artist and a runaway, who takes Benny under her wing, and The Bottleman, a Slovenian poet without a permanent home.
This cast of characters, made up of society’s misfits, is the beating heart of Ozeki’s novel. She is often described as a compassionate writer, and that shines through here; she writes about people’s thought processes in a way that makes them relatable despite being socially frowned upon. Annabelle’s hoarding habit, for instance, turns into a completely understandable act: the house may be overflowing, but when she must have another snow globe or rubber duck because of the personal connection she’s made with them, she is presented as someone with a great sensitivity to things in the world rather than a problem hoarder. Here we have a world of squatting, scavenging and lives at breaking point, but it is never reduced simply to misery; rather, lives seen as the complexes they are.
This complexity is also reflected in the recurring theme of what is classed as a mental illness. One idea that is explored is to what extent hearing voices can be a strength, or simply a different way of being in world. For Benny, this is much more valuable than any of the labels he is given through his psychiatric care.
It is a shame, then, that at times caricature-like elements seep in. The Aleph has a habit of coming out with lines that sound like a lazy stereotype of wokeness rather than a character with several layers to her. When Benny first mistakes her ferret TAZ (short for Temporary Autonomous Zone) for a rat, she is quick to correct him:
“It’s not an it,” she said. “It’s a they. They’re a ferret. A nonbinary gender-fluid ferret, so don’t let them hear you calling them a rat. They hate that.”
Another feature that could have been edited out is how the Bottleman — along with some other characters who don’t speak English as their first language — are made to speak like something out of a comic show: ““Ze natural state,” he declared, “is ze best state!”” Everyone else speaks in a very literary language, so that their colloquial and dialectal differences aren’t represented in the writing — so why, then, do this for the non-native speakers?
What I wish there had been more of is the bookishness of the Book as a narrator. The novel alternates between shorter remarks by Benny, in dialogue with the Book, and longer chapters by the Book as the main third-person narrator. For the most part, however, the Book is just that: apart from some reflections on the function of books, it could be any impersonal narrative voice. This seems like too good an opportunity to miss. Recently, Elif Shafak wrote some of her The Island of Missing Trees through a fig tree who is very much rooted in the natural world in her narration and opens up perspectives that would otherwise remain hidden. I would love to have seen that put to play with books properly.
But even as it is, The Book of Form and Emptiness provides food for thought, and most of all, a story that grips.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate, 2021). 978-1838855239, 560pp., hardback.
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