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.
"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.
|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).
"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.
"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).
"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).
"...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).