Tuesday, October 05, 2021

“The Book of Form and Emptiness”

Ruth Ozeki's new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, is fascinating and hard to grasp. It's very fun to read and very hard to write about. Ozeki has wonderful powers of observation, and writes very beautifully. There are even birds in the novel: crows, to be specific, play an interesting role in some of the characters' lives.

The Book of Form and Emptiness can be viewed as a perfectly clear narrative about a fourteen-year-old boy, Benjamin Oh, his mother Annabelle, his late father Kenji Oh, and a few other people, many of them quite colorful. Or maybe can be viewed as something else, more ponderous. It's hard to explain, and it's hard to describe these characters, who are very complex and quite far outside of expected social norms.

Benny hears the voices of many things that don't talk to most people. These voices are not always speaking in English, but sometimes just making sounds. For example: 
"He opened the refrigerator door again, just a crack, but wide enough to allow the interior light to come on and the cold air to escape, bathing his face with a sour exhalation, and then he heard the sounds again. They were faint, but now he could tell them apart: the groans of moldy cheeses, the sighs of old lettuces, the half-eaten yogurts whining from the back shelf where they’d been shoved and forgotten. 
"'Stop it,' he whispered." (p. 48).

Things of many types don't stop making noise when Benny asks them to be quiet, and he soon clearly seems disturbed to his mother, his teachers, and the authorities at his school. So he's first assigned a shrink, and eventually put in the Pediatric Psychiatry Unit at the local hospital, which its inmates call "Pedipsy." While Benny has no relationships with the other kids in his school, who sometimes bully him, he meets another patient, a troubled older girl named Alice who becomes a friend and object of his love. Alice prefers to be called "The Aleph," because she identifies with a short story called “The Aleph,” by the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges.

Books and writers are a key to the whole novel, and in fact, much of the narrative is by a sort-of-character called "The Book," which is writing itself. The Book chronicles the lives and memories of the characters, especially Benny and Annabelle, as well as the memories of Kenji's life as a jazz musician and his tragic death. Yes, this is complicated to explain but not that hard to follow in Ozeki's novel. 

Consistent with the role of books and The Book, Benny's favorite place to be is a huge labyrinthine library which is a short bus ride from his home in Chinatown in an unnamed city in the Pacific Northwest (sort of Seattle-like but not named). After his stay in Pedipsy, Benny skips school and spends all his time there, and sometimes meets The Aleph and her friends there. For Benny, the library is full of strange finds such as a postcard with the following image:

On a postcard that Benny finds: this image, Angelus Novus, or
"The Angel of History" by Paul Klee, 1920
"It was the sort of postcard sold at museum gift shops, depicting great works of art, only this one just had a drawing of a stick figure, scrawled on paper that was stained and brown around the edges. The figure had a mop of curly hair and was wearing a skirt, but after studying the long face and square jaw, Benny decided that it was a man in spite of the skirt. His widely spaced, almond-shaped eyes were staring past Benny’s right shoulder, in the direction where the voices often came from. He turned and looked over his shoulder, but all he saw was a row of books." (pp. 170-171). 
Written on the back of the postcard that Benny found: 
"This is how one pictures the Angel of History. His face is turned toward the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurling it at his feet. The Angel wants to stay, to awaken the dead, to make whole what has been smashed."  (p. 171). 

Although not so identified in the book, this quote is from Walter Benjamin's 1940 essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History." At that time Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) owned the print. Ozeki, by this point in the novel, has been introducing the novel's chapters with Walter Benjamin's aphorisms:

"(According to the capabilities of the reader) books have their own destinies. —Walter Benjamin, 'Unpacking My Library,'” (pp. ix-x). 

"Thus there is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order. —Walter Benjamin," (p. 133).

So you see: The Book of Form and Emptiness is full of references to rather obscure literature. But it's also full of details about another book titled Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life. This is Ozeki's fictitious version of the major best-selling book by Marie Kondo that was published with great success in the US in 2010. The fictional book and its author, a Buddhist monk and rather complex woman, also play a role, especially in the life of Annabelle, who is trying to deal with possessions that have essentially possessed her and taken over her house.

Naturally, as I read, I was mindful of the way that food in this novel indicated a variety of character traits. Benny and his mother particularly remembered eating Chinese take-out with Kenji before his death -- and they eat take-out often: "Tonight, she declared, they were having a banquet. In addition to the spare ribs, she’d bought egg rolls, steamed dumplings, pork buns, Chongqing chicken and house-special fried rice." (p. 62). 

Healthy food is what Annabelle, who has gained enormous amounts of weight after her husband died, is always thinking about. Here's an example that illustrates her very erratic way of thinking and getting things done (or not getting them done):  
"The chips and salsa failed to satisfy. What she really needed was a salad. A nice big salad with tomatoes and carrots and avocados and other healthy things. She could take the bus over to the Whole Foods Market and get a salad from the salad bar, but this would mean taking off a whole hour of work, ... and besides, Whole Foods was ridiculously expensive, and the people who shopped there always made her feel bad about herself. Unhealthy. No, just say it, Annabelle: fat. They make you feel fat. Fine, she thought, sitting up and emptying the chip bag, shaking it to get the last of the crumbs. Whatever. She headed back downstairs. She didn’t need the Whole Foods salad bar. She could buy perfectly good lettuce at the cheap, unhealthy, discount supermarket and make her own salads. She could go today after work. She would need a salad spinner, too. She used to have one around the house somewhere, but she hadn’t seen it for a while. Well, she could always buy another one online." (pp. 162-163). 
Annabelle was always trying to do the right thing, but she can't ever get the house cleaned up or the pantry properly stocked. After forgetting to buy a variety of things one day, she decides:
"She would take a little walk and buy trash bags, lettuce, and something nice and healthy for his dinner, and then while it was cooking, she would tidy up the kitchen so they could sit down and have a proper meal at the table." (p. 180). 

 Once, her intentions are even realized, and she actually cooked spaghetti: 

"Annabelle was standing at the counter, emptying a quart jar of tomato sauce into a saucepan. A large pot of water was boiling on the stove. 

"'Hi, honey,' she called. 'I hope you’re good and hungry. I’m making spaghetti for dinner!'” (p. 203). 
The Aleph has quite a different relationship to food. She lives on the streets when not in the mental hospital, and interacts with several other memorable characters, especially a poet who drinks a lot. The street people are adept at dumpster diving. Specifically, on a brief camping trip with the Aleph and another former patient named Mackson, Benny observes: 
"...she’d brought more food: more sandwich wraps, and chips, and a plastic bin of salsa. She told him the sandwich wraps were on account of Mackson scoring a whole unopened case of freezer-burned tortillas from a Mexican restaurant dumpster. Mackson’s an awesome gleaner, she said. The chips and salsa came from there, too. Benny didn’t know what a gleaner was, but he wanted to be one." (p. 371). 
Finally, you may wonder: what does the title mean? Well, one of the colorful characters, the street person who is also a poet, lectures Benny on history; on literature, especially Walter Benjamin; and on philosophy. And he says "Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness." (p. 276). 

A central question, Benny's philosophical question as well as that of the poet, echoes throughout the book: "What is real?" This is a major theme of the entire novel, and applies to much that Benny and the others experience. 

I hope I've conveyed some of my feelings about the appeal of this book. For completely different interpretations, see this New York Times review: "Ruth Ozeki’s Borgesian, Zen Buddhist Parable of Consumerism," or this Washington Post review: "If a book could talk, what would it say? Ruth Ozeki has some ideas."

Review © 2021 mae sander.


Divers and Sundry said...

It sounds like a fascinating read!

Louise H said...

This sounds like a really deep and emotive read. Glad you enjoyed it.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think I will give this book a miss.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Wow. This sounds amazing. Not my usual kind of read, but sounds oddly compelling. Thanks.

Jinjer-The Intrepid Angeleno said...

"I hope I've conveyed some of my feelings about the appeal of this book."

YASSSSSS! And thank you for posting some blurbs from the book. It's always good for me to get a sense of the writing style and the little passages you included made me want to start reading it right now. Unfortunately, for now it can only sit on my TBR list.

Also unfortunately, the two reviews you linked to are behind paywalls or something so I can't read them, but that's ok. I checked out descriptions of some of her other books on Goodreads and now I want to read ALL her books.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Caution for those who have not read the book: A few possible spoilers below...

I read the book last week, too; my review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4263057757. I'm a person who thrives on quirky stories with vivid characters and I'm also fascinated with Zen. I don't, in general however, like long books, so I was surprised that I couldn't stop reading. When I was one hundred pages from the end, and the characters were still all faced with terrible problems, I was terribly worried that things would not wrap up neatly, and, of course, as in life, they did not. Still, it was an entirely satisfying read for me, with a nice mix of action with philosophy.

Elza Reads said...

This book is making the rounds at the moment. It does sound fascinating and your review was lovely and thorough. Going to keep an eye out for this one.

Have a good week ahead!

Elza Reads

Debra Eliotseats said...

I'm trying to think where I have hear about this novel. Very well written thoughts on it.

thecuecard said...

This novel seems stuffed with all sorts of stuff about books in it. Quite a different kind of read. I liked her first book but feel a bit on the fence perhaps about this one. I'm glad you liked it.