The world Ruth Ozeki creates in The Book of Form and Emptiness resembles one of the snow globes that pop up throughout the novel: a whirling chaos of objects and people. The narration is shared between traumatized Benny, a 21st-century Holden Caulfield figure, and ‘The Book’ itself, opinionated, chatty. The author has fun with both wokery and its opposite. Look out for the gender-fluid pet ferret whose preferred pronoun is They.
Benny’s father died when the boy was 12, run down by a truck full of chickens. Now going on 14, he hears voices in his head, objects speak to him (coffee cups, sneakers, windowpanes), bombarding him with conflicting advice. He’s haunted by memories of his Japanese jazz clarinetist father. His mother has become a hoarder, filling every room in the house with mountains of stuff, risking eviction and her son being taken into care. She turns for help to a Buddhist nun who’s written a bestselling Marie Kondo-type book, ‘the ancient Zen art of clearing your clutter and revolutionizing your life’.
Barred from school, Benny ends up in a pediatric psychiatric ward alongside a dangerously charismatic girl known as Alice (from Wonderland?). She introduces him to a crazy old Slovenian poet with a prosthetic leg, a wheelchair full of empty vodka bottles and an obsession with Walter Benjamin. Throughout, literature is a leitmotif: Blake’s world in a grain of sand; Wordsworthian intimations of immortality; and Shakespeare — like Prospero’s isle, this world is full of noises. Its ambiguous guardian angel is Borges, and when Alice takes to calling herself the Aleph, it’s a knowing nod to the great Argentinian. The city library is the heart of the book, a place of shelter, enlightenment and mystery where Benny, playing truant, hides from the world and builds a secret life protected by a young black librarian and a couple of Bulgarian janitors.
Ozeki is Japanese American, a Zen Buddhist priest as well as an award-winning novelist shortlisted for the Booker. Different readers will read her book differently, some identifying with disaffected, teen-speaking Benny, others relishing the postmodernist fun. Or you can simply spin through the pages and enjoy the story. Running like a reef beneath the philosophical preoccupations and planetary anxieties is a tender chronicle of a boy grieving for his dead father, and a mother unable to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband. About halfway through, the book falters under the weight of its ideas before arriving at a sweet but satisfying conclusion. Ozeki is a skilled storyteller and the journey she takes us on is deadpan hilarious, heart-touching and ultimately hopeful.