The Book of Form and Emptiness – A Story About Storytelling
Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, The book of form and emptiness, is the often moving story of two people grappling with the unexpected loss of a third. It’s also ostentatious self-commentary on how we tell and receive stories through books.
Ozeki’s most famous work, A tale for the moment (2013), was intensely interested in the dynamic interaction between two people – a teenage columnist living in Tokyo, writing about her life, and a writer living in Vancouver who reads about that life after finding the newspaper. Leaving that clear binary behind for something more multiplier, Ozeki’s latest work speaks as much about himself as it is about Annabelle and Benny, a mother and son living precariously in a contemporary city on the American West Coast.
Their husband and father Kenji, a lovable musician with a persistent drug problem, is killed by a truck carrying live chickens early in the story. Without his unifying and vitalizing presence, his wife and son have to reckon with their weak hold on each other and on life more generally.
It sends them in very different directions. Benny begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects, like when a bird flies against a window at school and takes note of the window wailing about this experience. Already a sensitive and lonely teenager, Benny is greeted with skepticism when he tries to explain what is going on, both from the already struggling Annabelle and from her teachers, counselors and, ultimately, the doctors he meets. once he is on medication and hospitalized.
Subsequently, he finds more effective sources of understanding and support with an older, cerebral and sharper-tongued girl, Alice. She’s a runaway drug addict artist and activist known as Aleph, and she teams up with the B-Man, an alcoholic Eastern European Marxist poet who is alcoholic in a wheelchair. The two squat in and around the downtown public library and befriend Benny, leading to experiences that are both exhilarating and terrifying.
Meanwhile, Annabelle, a grieving hoarder facing eviction, a promising job loss, rising medical bills, and an unstable and distant son, unexpectedly finds solace in a guidebook. Zen Buddhist monk to live well thanks to a tidy household.
It would all make for a convoluted story made nonetheless engaging by the shameless seriousness of Ozeki’s treatment of his characters’ struggles. But Ozeki doesn’t just tell a story. Conventional segments of the novel are interwoven with monologues by Benny and the book itself, in the voices – respectively – of a sarcastic and questioning teenager with low self-esteem and an empathetic and encouraging therapist with immense self-esteem. self.
The author sets high standards for this conceptual boldness, with repeated quotes and riffs on Walter Benjamin’s writings on books and libraries, and on creating ideal Borges puzzles with identity and history. But such signals and quotes only expose the sickening banality of Ozeki’s own assertions and ideas, which include teenage bibliophile depths like “Yes, we’re your book, Benny, but it’s your story.” We can help you, but in the end, only you can live your life.
Ozeki has considerable storytelling energies; these were evident and rightly acclaimed in his earlier work, and also feature in the best parts of The book of form and emptiness. It’s a shame that, in this case, his touching story is overwhelmed by the novel’s empty and affected observations of itself.
The book of form and emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, Canongate Books £ 18.99, 560 pages
Randy Boyagoda’s new novel ‘Dante’s Indiana ‘ (Bibliase) is now available
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