I loved reading this book. Previously I had read and hugely enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was a great pleasure to settle down with her new novel for hours at a time. But I have been puzzled about how to present it on this blog. It is so full of ideas, of writing skill, of adventurousness, of themes that resonate with our predicaments at the moment that I haven’t known where to start.
The Book of Form & Emptiness
Perhaps a good place to start is with the story, for the narrative drive is strong in this book, despite everything else she gives us. Benny Oh is twelve when his father dies, killed by a rubbish truck in the alley behind his house. Benny lives in a city near the Pacific coast of the US. Locations in this novel are vague, unlike the timeframe: Trump’s election as President features, for example. But we are never given the name of the city Benny inhabits.
Benny’s father was a Korean-Japanese jazz clarinettist. His mother is Annabelle, who works as a scissors woman, clipping newspapers for a media organisation. Benny is mixed race, and one theme of the novel is how he negotiates this in present day America.
Grief overcomes mother and son. Benny hears voices, or rather voices speak to Benny, things speak to Benny, but he resists them. The scissors that tell him to stab his teacher, for example, he can only resist by stabbing himself. This reaction brings Benny to the attention of his school’s mental health services.
The significance of things, what they mean to us, their existence, their connection to the environmental problems of our world, these are also important themes of this novel. Annabelle becomes something of a hoarder, packing her news clippings in plastic bags, keeping Kenji’s shirts to make a memory quilt, storing her craft materials in the bath until the flat is stuffed with things and the only tidy space is Benny’s bedroom.
Then a little book, Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, jumps into her shopping trolley one day, and leads her, and us, into a different world of ideas about things, especially domestic possessions. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest.
Meanwhile Benny’s behaviour having attracted the attention of child psychiatrists, means he spends time in a Pedpsych ward where he meets the Alef (see Jorge Luis Borges’s short story) who is following in the path of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement. I looked that one up too. One of the Alef’s messages takes Benny to the Library, where much of this novel is located. Here he meets the B-Man who is a Slavic poet in a wheelchair, the small librarian, and even Ruth Ozeki who is typing away in a remote corner of the library.
An older woman sat in the other [carrel], typing very fast on her laptop computer. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, part Asian like him, maybe, with black-framed glasses and gray-streaked hair. She must have sensed his presence, because she lifted her head and looked at him, and all the while her fingers typed on, never pausing. (141-2)
And now a word about one of the narrators
Some of the story is told by an omniscient narrator, where it concerns Annabelle’s actions, or slips into the concerns of the doctors, or librarians, or retells the life of the Zen Buddhist priest Aikon, who wrote Tidy Magic.
But Benny’s story is told to him by his Book. Benny introduces it:
Shhh … Listen!
That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it?
It’s okay if you can’t, though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously, and obviously the book is speaking to you, so try something more challenging. … (3)
And the Book continues to tell Benny’s story, from Kenji’s death to the final pages which are a collaboration between Benny and his narrator some 500 pages later.
The novel is full of ideas about books, quotations from Walter Benjamin, including the story of his final, lost book as he fled from the Nazis to Spain; about the physicality of ‘real’ books; about writing and the writer (think the woman in the carrel in the library) and the reader; and about finding one’s feet in a shifting and dangerous world.
For example, Slavoj, the Slavic bottle-man ,who is writing an epic poem called Earth, tells Benny about writing poetry:
“Let me tell you something about poetry, young schoolboy. Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I haf created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem.”: He sighed. “In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.” (276-7)
We have taken in some jazz, some theories of poetry, the randomness of Fluxus, ideas about connectedness, and the ecological dangers we have created for ourselves. And I haven’t even mentioned the crows.
Ruth Ozeki has explained her title by reference to impermanence and interconnection in this interview extract:
The phrase “form and emptiness” comes from the Heart Sutra, one of the core Mahayana Buddhist texts. The line we chant is “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Emptiness, in this sense, refers to impermanence, and the way all things, all beings, are impermanent and exist in a perpetual state of interdependent flux, or dependent co-arising. None of us—human beings, animals, insects, books, stones, trees—has a fixed, essential self or identity independent of everything and everyone else, and this sense of interconnectedness is, I think, what Benny comes to appreciate in the novel. His relationship with his mother. His relationships with his friends. His relationship with his book. [From the Lion’s Roar, Buddhist Wisdom for our Time, an interview with Nancy Chu. September 2021]
There is so much in this book, so many ideas, such a call for the recognition and importance of difference and connection that I would like to encourage readers to pick it up and enjoy it as I did. This generous novel seems to be bursting out of its pages.
Born in 1956, Ruth Ozeki was brought up in Connecticut. Like Benny she has mixed parentage. She has worked in film and has now published four award-winning novels and a short memoir. Since 2010 has been a Zen Buddhist priest. She teaches creative writing at Smith College.
The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki published in 2021, by Canongate. 546pp
Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (November 2013)