The Book of Form and Emptiness: A Novel (Hardcover)
October 2021 Indie Next List
“An incredible narrative about coming of age in the shadow of grief, Ozeki is again in fine form with this new novel, which combines zen wisdom with intricately structured prose.”
— Bennard Fajardo, Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC
If a book could talk, what would it say? Ruth Ozeki has some ideas. By Wendy Smith September 25, 2021 in the Washington Post
“Shh….Listen!” Benny Oh says at the beginning of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel. “That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you.” His Book is not the only one; Benny hears the voices of all kinds of inanimate objects: fluorescent lights, coffee beans, paper cups, “the chatter of cash registers filled with all those arrogant metal coins that think they’re actually worth something.” It began the year he was 12, the Book informs us, the year his father died in a freak accident. Together, sometimes in amusing counterpoint, the Book and Benny chronicle his journey during the fraught year 2016, when he turns 14. Their tale of sorrow, danger and tentative redemption serves as the springboard for extended meditations on the interdependence of all beings, the magic of books, the disastrous ecological and spiritual effects of unchecked consumerism and more.
The author has so much she wants to say that her narrative is sometimes as cluttered as the cramped half-house in which Benny’s mother, Annabelle, obsessively piles up unnecessary purchases. Fortunately, one of Ozeki’s gifts as a novelist is the ability to enfold provocative intellectual material within a human story grounded in sharply observed social detail. Her emotional engagement with her characters and her themes makes “The Book of Form and Emptiness” as compelling as it is occasionally unwieldy.
During his last year of junior high, the voices Benny hears become so insistent that he flips out in class, pounding on a windowpane that is crying because a bird hit it, and winds up in the pediatric psychiatric unit at the local children’s hospital. There he meets an older girl who calls herself the Aleph and enjoys subverting the hospital staff’s efforts to normalize their patients. Benny is intrigued by the slips of white paper she hands out with Fluxus-like directives that urge new perspectives on reality. (The question of what is real, first prompted by the voices he hears, echoes through the novel.) He’s even more intrigued after he’s discharged and finds a note from the Aleph in his pocket: “Come to the Library.” There, in the mysteriously powerful Bindery, Benny’s journey reaches a surreal crisis.
Anabelle’s crisis is all too real. She’s immobilized by grief for her dead husband and fear of losing her job and her home. The only thing that makes her feel better is buying things: teapots, snow globes, whatever. The stuff piling up in the house isn’t entirely her fault; the media-monitoring company for which she scans print articles has shut its offices and sent her to work from home, instructing her to save the paper sources as an archive. Her landlady’s grasping son takes the mounting mess as an excuse to threaten her with eviction. Annabelle tries to follow the advice tendered in “Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life,” a book that jumps into her cart during a shopping spree, but she’s overwhelmed by the massive cleanup required.
The Zen teachings seamlessly integrated into the story line of Ozeki’s previous novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” here seem a slightly redundant addition to the chorus of voices urging us to see the desolation manifest in our mania for possessions and the terrible consequences of viewing the Earth’s bounty as raw material to be exploited for human gain. The Aleph makes glass globes memorializing catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami to illustrate the horrors of “disaster capitalism” and consumer culture. “We are our planet, and we must love it completely,” preaches her mentor Slavoj, “a super famous poet back in Slovenia,” now homeless and wheelchair-bound in this unnamed West Coast city. The Book chimes in, decrying the “social hierarchy of matter” created by people to place “the Made,” things shaped by human hands, above “the Unmade,” things that exist in nature. “In the beginning,” the Book grieves, “every thing mattered.”
It’s unclear how this call to revere all objects relates to the Book’s equally fervent denunciation of the way humans have overloaded the planet with trash. With so many philosophical balls in the air, Ozeki’s ideas are sometimes as inchoate as the metaphor of form and emptiness she periodically invokes but never entirely elucidates. Like all artists, her flaws are intertwined with her strengths; she embraces complexity and contradiction. The Aleph and Slavoj voice legitimate criticisms of the social order, but she’s a troubled, drug-abusing teen and he’s an aging alcoholic. Annabelle is irritatingly hapless, but she can display unexpected resourcefulness and toughness. Benny is wincingly vulnerable when he pines for the Aleph, delightfully sassy when he spars with the Book. The Book itself has a marvelous voice: adult, ironic, affirming at every turn the importance of books as a repository of humanity’s deepest wisdom and highest aspirations.
The human drama Ozeki crafts comes to a satisfying conclusion; Benny and Annabelle work and grow to achieve their measured happy endings. The larger issues their stories raise remain unresolved, because there are no easy resolutions in life — or in the challenging kind of art practiced in “The Book of Form and Emptiness.”
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
“Inventive, vivid, and propelled by a sense of wonder.” —TIME
“If you’ve lost your way with fiction over the last year or two, let The Book of Form and Emptiness light your way home.” —David Mitchell, Booker Prize-finalist author of Cloud Atlas
A boy who hears the voices of objects all around him; a mother drowning in her possessions; and a Book that might hold the secret to saving them both—the brilliantly inventive new novel from the Booker Prize-finalist Ruth Ozeki
One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house—a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn't understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.
At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, Benny discovers a strange new world. He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.
And he meets his very own Book—a talking thing—who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.
With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot, and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz, to climate change, to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki—bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane and heartbreaking.
“[A] Borgesian, Zen Buddhist parable of consumerism . . . [Ozeki] endows objects and animals with anima, the breath of life . . . [she] ensouls the world . . . There’s powerful magic here . . . Ozeki is unusually patient with her characters, even the rebarbative ones, and she is able to record the subtle peculiarities of other classes of beings that more overeager writers would probably miss . . . Ozeki gives us a metaphor for our very own American consumption disorder, our love-hate relationship with the stuff we produce and can’t let go of.” —New York Times Book Review
“A masterful meditation on consumer culture . . . This novel’s meditative pacing perfectly suits its open-hearted contemplation. The book’s self-awareness allows it to comically hedge and tiptoe, to digress into diatribes into the ‘false dichotomies and hegemonic hierarchies of materialist colonizers’ only to catch itself and sheepishly apologize: ‘Sorry. That turned into a rant. No reader likes a rant. As a book, we should know better.’ The Book of Form and Emptiness is concerned foremost with the outsiders in our world, the ones who hear voices, who are friendless, who fall into addiction and self-harm. It’s concerned, too, with the ultimate outsiders, the objects that we produce and discard, produce and discard. It is both profound and fun, a loving indictment of our consumer culture. As the novel asks the reader turning the pages, ‘has it ever occurred to you that books have feelings, too?’” —USA Today
“[A] tale of sorrow, danger and tentative redemption serves as the springboard for extended meditations on the interdependence of all beings, the magic of books, the disastrous ecological and spiritual effects of unchecked consumerism and more . . . one of Ozeki’s gifts as a novelist is the ability to enfold provocative intellectual material within a human story grounded in sharply observed social detail . . . The Book itself has a marvelous voice: adult, ironic, affirming at every turn the importance of books as a repository of humanity’s deepest wisdom and highest aspirations.” —Washington Post
“There has never been a more timely novel. . . a beautiful, funny, sad, haunting, and extremely moving narrative . . . Ozeki’s commitment to having all her novels be co-productions created by multiple figures reaches its most dazzling manifestation in a book and a protagonist, mutually engendered.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“Objects and ideas come to life in [The Book of Form and Emptiness] . . . a vivid story of fraught adolescence, big ideas and humanity’s tenuous hold on a suffering planet . . . Ozeki, an imaginative writer with a subversive sense of humor, has an acute grasp of young people’s contemporary dilemmas . . . This would be a great book to read in tandem with an adolescent in your life, a potential classic for the young-adult audience . . . [Ozeki offers] a profound understanding of the human condition and a gift for turning it into literature.” —Los Angeles Times
“Ozeki has shifted her readers’ way of perceiving what is 'normal' through a sort of slow, capillary action. Her books are not didactic, but they are useful; they’re not mission-driven, but they are richly moral. She writes urgently about the environment—you leave an Ozeki book knowing more about ocean contamination or factory farming—and her novels tend to include a painful parent-child rupture as well as a burbling stream of absurdist humor . . . Ozeki started writing The Book of Form and Emptiness eight years ago, but it is eerily suited to what readers are going through now, a quantum companion to A Tale for the Time Being: If time is part of healing, sorting through matter—through stuff—is part of mourning.” —New York Magazine
“Heartfelt . . . Ozeki, a practicing Buddhist priest, infuses her story with Zen philosophy, using themes of mindfulness and our connection to the living world to highlight pressing modern concerns like climate change, capitalism and the function of art. Inventive, vivid and propelled by a sense of wonder, The Book of Form and Emptiness will delight younger and older readers alike.” —TIME
“[It’s hard] not to like Ozeki’s calm, dry, methodical good humour and wit, her love affairs with linguistics and jazz and the absurd, her cautious optimism, her gentle parodies . . . [she] is carefully celebrating difference, not patronizing dysfunction. Out of their fractured relations, she makes something so satisfying that it gave me the sense of being addressed not by an author but by a world, one that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in tenuous parallel to ours: a world built out of ideas that spill into the text like a continuous real-time event.” —The Guardian
“An ambitious and ingenious novel that presents a stinging exploration of grief [and] a reflection on our relationship to objects . . . combine[s] daunting intellectual complexity and accessible big-heartedness . . . The most endearing aspect of Ozeki’s novel is its unabashed celebration of words, writing, and reading . . . Ozeki’s playfulness and zaniness, her compassion and boundless curiosity, prevent the novel from ever feeling stiff or pretentious. Clever without being arch, metafictional without being arcane, dark without being nihilistic, The Book of Form and Emptiness is an exuberant delight.” —Boston Globe
“This book ponders the very nature of things . . . Do inanimate items possess a life force? How do we distinguish acute sensitivity from mental illness? These questions fuel a searching novel, one that combines a coming-of-age tale with an ode to the printed page. . . Ozeki's incisive on matters like consumerism and climate change. Meanwhile, her ruminations on life's greatest mysteries provide an elegant foundation for an intriguing story.” —Star-Tribune
“In giving the Book a point of view, Ozeki creates a loquacious, animated voice with ideas about other books, the past, the need for human stories and the mutual needs of humans and books. . . With this well-developed voice, Ozeki plays humorously with ideas about what a novel is — about the development of a story, how it gets told, who tells it, who hears it and how books affect people . . . Ozeki, who is a Zen Buddhist priest and filmmaker, takes up big ideas about this moment on our planet, but also offers close descriptions of memorable images that make the prose absorbing . . . These images reverberate long after the reading, speaking to Ozeki’s broad and benign vision of connected beings.” —Seattle Times
“What an odd and tender and lovely novel this is . . . Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest in addition to being an accomplished author, and this rambling, shaggy narrative has a number of Zen ideas to play with . . . In Ozeki’s world, books are urgent and powerful regardless of genre.” —Vox
“The Book of Form and Emptiness indeed has everything one wants from a novel—sympathetic and interesting characters, a propulsive story that is heartbreaking but also playful and affirming, artful structure and skillful point of view—all while wrestling with life’s big questions. The novel’s engagement with issues of climate change and consumerism culture give it an urgency, but its whimsical and epic story makes it the kind of book to settle into, where you both want to keep reading and never want it to end. It’s a novel that reminds you of the power of books, exploring the magical exchange between writer and reader.” —Fiction Writers Review
“On the surface, Ozeki’s novel is about a grief-stricken family struggling to find meaning in the aftermath of a tragedy. But dig deeper and the story is an intricately layered commentary on modern society and the significance it puts on material objects, a study on subjectivity and the nature of reality. All the while, it’s a book about the unknown, all-knowing realms of the imagination…When spending time in Ozeki’s world, the empirically provable and quantifiable become less important, and the truths of our inner lives grow louder, if only we can honor those voices.” —Japan Times
“With her characteristic charm, empathy, and perspicacity, Ozeki writes Benny’s story of learning to hear, and manage, the voices, and hear himself along the way.” —The Millions
“[A] beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful novel” —Reader’s Digest
“[A] poignant and funny story.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“If what you need right now is to sink into a big, warm, literary bath, this is the book for you. It’s not that Ozeki’s latest novel isn’t challenging, it’s just that it manages to be so while also being pure pleasure, especially if you’re the kind of person who once had mostly books for friends . . . It’s a big book in more ways than one, complex and ambitious and wide-ranging, but honestly also just so charming I found it hard to walk away from, even when I was done.” —Emily Temple, Lit Hub
“Spectacular . . . this novel is filled with hope, compassion and more than a little wonder . . . Ozeki's books consistently nourish the soul.” —Shelf Awareness (starred)
“With all confidence, I can say that The Book of Form and Emptiness is very real. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story of emotional growth filled with characters as real as anyone you would meet on the street. Except we are meeting them through the Book. And the Book, as we learn, knows all.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“Ozeki’s illuminating postmodern latest [...] explores themes of mourning, madness, and the powers of the imagination . . . Ozeki playfully and successfully breaks the fourth wall [...] and she cultivates a striking blend of young adult fiction tropes with complex references to Walter Benjamin, Zen Buddhism, and Marxist philosophy. This is the rare work that will entertain teenagers, literary fiction readers, and academics alike.” —Publishers Weekly
“[Ozeki] writes with bountiful insight, exuberant imagination, and levitating grace about psychic diversity, our complicated attitude toward our possessions, street protests, climate change, and such wonders as crows, the moon, and snow globes. Most inventively, Ozeki celebrates the profound relationship between reader and writer. This enthralling, poignant, funny, and mysterious saga, thrumming with grief and tenderness, beauty and compassion, offers much wisdom.” —Booklist (starred)
“A great premise, one that perfectly captures how it feels to be a child falling into a lifelong love of reading. It’s a book for book people, exploring how books can offer meaning and – in this case, literally – speak to us.” —BookPage
“A meditative tribute to books, libraries, and Zen wisdom.” —Kirkus
“This compassionate novel of life, love and loss glows in the dark. Its strange, beautiful pages turn themselves. If you’ve lost your way with fiction over the last year or two, let The Book of Form and Emptiness light your way home.” —David Mitchell, Booker Prize-finalist author of Cloud Atlas and Utopia Avenue
“Heart-breaking and heart-healing—a book to not only keep us absorbed but also to help us think and love and live and listen. No one writes quite like Ruth Ozeki and The Book of Form and Emptiness is a triumph.” —Matt Haig, New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Library
“This is both an extremely vivid picture of a small family enduring unimaginable loss, and a very powerful meditation on the way books can contain the chaos of the world and give it meaning and order. Annabelle and Benny Oh try to stay afloat in a sea of things, news, substances, technological soullessness, and psychiatric quagmires, and the way they learn to live and breathe and even swim through it all feels like the struggle we all face. The Book of Form and Emptiness builds on the themes of A Tale for the Time Being, and ratifies Ozeki as one of our era’s most compassionate and original minds.” —Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Parade
“Once again, Ozeki has created a masterpiece. Her generous heart, remarkable imagination, and brilliant mind light up every page.” —Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
"Ozeki has done it again. This time she crosses into new dimensions, breathing life into pages, enticing us into an intimate world. Richly imagined, gorgeously executed, The Book of Form and Emptiness is a remarkable book.” —David Eagleman, acclaimed neuroscientist and author of Livewired