Teenager Benny Oh has just lost his father, a Japanese-American jazz clarinetist. His mother, Annabelle, too, struggles with her grief. As a few years pass, Annabelle lets their home fill with the clutter of things she thinks will fill the emptiness her husband left behind. It is surely never comfortable to live with someone who hoards, but Benny’s situation is complicated: he can hear the voices of material objects.
Benny can also hear the narrative voice of the novel itself as it tells his story.
The Book of Form and Emptiness is Ruth Ozeki’s first novel since the 2013 publication of her prize-winning A Tale for the Time Being. Like the characters in her earlier work, the characters here are believable and human; Annabelle in particular is lovely, lonely, and strikingly real. Her flaws are written large, but, like literature’s best flaws, her hoarding is a perversion of her greatest strength. She sees beauty in small, broken things. Her love of broken things extends, of course, her son, whom she must eventually institutionalize because of the voices he hears.
While on the psychiatric ward, Benny meets a young woman—similarly broken—who calls herself the Aelph. She introduces him to San Francisco’s counter-cultural and artistic underground. Benny’s initiation into the Aelph’s world provokes many of the novel’s best scenes: a trail of breadcrumbs in the neglected sections of the public library, existential conversations with a one-legged immigrant poet, and the sky burial of a non-binary ferret.
Ozeki is both a novelist and a Buddhist priest. In each of her four novels, she is at her best when her fiction connects her Zen practice to her characters’ lives. The most prominent Buddhist presence in The Book of Form and Emptiness is Aikon, an “office lady” turned Buddhist nun who writes a decluttering guidebook à la Marie Kondo. In an incident typical of Ozeki’s writing, Aikon’s teacher counsels her when she drops his most cherished teacup. It survives the fall, but
It is the nature of a teacup to be broken. That is why it is so beautiful now, and why I appreciate it when I can still drink from it… When it is gone, it is gone.
The Book of Form and Emptiness adds a new layer to Ozeki’s earlier emphases on impermanence and interconnectivity. Here, Ozeki also promotes a love (complete, unconditional, “without expectation or disappointment”) of the imperfect. Annabelle embodies that love even in the novel’s opening pages; the momentum of the plot impels her to love even her own, broken self.
Aikon’s teacher makes Ozeki’s point more explicit:
You are perfect, just as you are. Her old teacher had told her this once. He’d said it quietly, like it was no big deal, but she could tell he really meant it, and she was stunned. Her teacher saw her clearly and saw that she was perfect! How wonderful! All this had flashed through her mind so quickly, but he was still speaking.
And, too, you could use a little improvement…
Despite its strengths, The Book of Form and Emptiness is less ambitious than its predecessor. A Tale for the Time Being is a work of genius—part semi-autobiography, part YA return narrative, and part eco-sci-fi with a bit of quantum magical realism thrown in for good measure. Through some flotsam she finds on the beach, Ruth (a fictional protagonist based on Ozeki) gets caught up in the life of a Japanese teenager on the brink of suicide. The teenager’s journal ties the two narratives together into a kind of metafictional symphony.
Compared to the vibrancy of A Tale for the Time Being, the metatextual elements in The Book of Form and Emptiness feel forced and—frankly—cliché. Writers have explored “man versus book” for decades. The voice of the Book Benny hears is charming and sometimes helpful. It is not particularly original.
When the Book speaks, its words are often heavy-handed and self-righteous. The Book is also a rather vocal Luddite:
… the order of things is changing, too, and as the population of the Made explodes, we [books] are experiencing a crisis—you would call it a spiritual crisis—as we lose our faith in you, our Makers. Our trust in you is deteriorating, and our belief in your wisdom and integrity is crumbling as we watch you mine, instrumentalize and lay waste to our home, this Earth, this sacred planet. This is your fault. Your unquenchable desire, the fire that sparked us into being, is our unmaking. Your unbounded appetite for novelty has led you to design premature obsolescence into our bodies, so that even as our numbers increase, our life spans diminish. Cruel calculations! No sooner are we discarded, left to revert into unmade, disincarnate stuff.
The Book is likewise responsible for many of the novel’s clunkier moments.
Nevertheless, The Book of Form and Emptiness has charms of its own. Its most compelling message is an important and timely one: human beings can learn to live in the tension between the way things are and the way they could be, to recognize both that there is room for improvement and that they are nonetheless perfect just the way they are. The novel is at its best when it is simply the story of Benny and Annabelle, two broken people who must learn to love themselves, flaws and all.