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Semi-Living Words in “The Book of Form and Emptiness”

Semi-Living Words in “The Book of Form and Emptiness”

  • Our review of Ruth Ozeki's latest novel, "The Book of Form and Emptiness."

During my recent out-of-state move from a sizable suburban home into my current studio, I resolved to condense my life into six storage totes, two cat carriers, a small car, and my own body. A close relative with a hoarding problem instilled in me a fear of clutter from a young age, and moving is the perfect time to reevaluate one’s possessions. Of course, my self-imposed ultimatum failed to account for the unsentimental yet practical things that might make a comfortable home, such as a standing fan, two-seat kitchen table, or toilet brush. That initial moving list contained matter both living and non-living which seemed necessary—though not all utilitarian—to my daily life, and the rest of the items in my new space followed as I discovered new needs. What I left behind, among donated clothing and MDF furniture, became mere stuff, optioned for either its next owner or the landfill. But objects left behind can be fascinating, too, partly because they hold untold stories. 

Think of a well-loved stuffed animal forgotten in a shopping cart, a lone glove sodden with snow, or perhaps cans littered in shrubs in the aftermath of a concert, a bar crawl, or a Tuesday evening. If those things could talk in a voice we understand, what sentiment might they hold? In Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, things begin to speak to thirteen-year-old Benny Oh following the unexpected death of his father. His mother Annabelle copes with her own trauma and pain by collecting various objects, including snowglobes, craft supplies, thrift teapots, and print archives necessary for her news-monitoring job. Soon overcrowded with the effects of their grief, the Ohs lose the plot to their shared story and struggle to connect to one another.

Benny attempts to ignore the voices of objects by leaving his mother and her hoard at home, only to discover the noise follows him onto the street. Their stories clamor for attention, expressing joy, rage, misery, and other grievances. Benny flees to a nearby public library for silence, finding camaraderie with a beautiful, drug-addicted street artist and a homeless refugee poet. The pair encourages the boy to channel the voices, ask questions, and uncover his own story among the stacks. Yet it’s in his head where the voice of his Book emerges, whispering to life a narrative that continues beyond his suffering. Here the Book provides an even-handed account of Benny’s life so far, unfolding lessons as they grow together, and teaching him how to discern what is real and significant. 

Those familiar with Ozeki’s previous novel, the 2013 Booker Prize finalist A Tale for a Time Being, may find distinctive symbols and themes across her writing: watchful crows, Zen philosophy, reflections on modern disasters, outcast teens and the parents from whom they suffer disconnect, and, most of all, books that have the power to reach through time and space. That former novel tells the tale of a young Japanese girl named Nao whose suicide note (or rather, chronicle) reaches a distant shore in North America via debris dispelled from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. If A Tale for a Time Being is a novel concerned with a continuum of moments folding around one another, A Book of Form and Emptiness is its energetic, matter-focused parallel. Nao’s jetsam diary told her story, now Benny’s Book tells his. 

Ozeki’s books are compassionate toward individuals relegated to the periphery of society, perhaps low-income persons or differently-abled bodies, surviving in a world seemingly not made for them. The cacophony of object-voices also invites a meditation on American consumerism, a preoccupation that propels tragedies onto those unable to meet its impossible standards. All of these marginalized lives are untold stories too, though Ozeki reassures her readership these unwritten stories, part of the “Unbound,” are worthy as such: “all that was and ever could be: form and emptiness, and the absence of form and emptiness.” 

The titular phrase recalls a Buddhist temple chant Nao records in A Tale for a Time Being. She writes, “Shiki fu I ku, ku fu I shiki” or “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Her exposition defines the hymn as “[n]othing in the world is solid or real, because nothing is permanent, and all things—including trees and animals and pebbles and mountains and rivers and even me and you—are just kind of flowing through for the time being.” In Benny’s Book, this transience extends to objects such as an intact teacup that is considered “already broken” by the monk who drinks from it. Because the teacup is fragile, its shattering and jettison are inevitable, though it is the monk’s favorite object. Thus, the impermanence of “Made” objects—such as a family heirloom swept away in the wake of a natural disaster—offers a reframing of the loss of “Unmade” things like burning forests, entire species, or beloved fathers. Life and even its most crushing endings are ephemeral, yet it is the stories we tell which honor and endure.

Despite an unabashed inclusion of modern events and problems, Ozeki presents facts without erring into didacticism. In one scene, Benny is pulled into a restless crowd of protestors and antagonists reeling with the outcome of an election and listens to the voice of a baseball bat telling him to smash a storefront window. In another scene, another character holds her tongue during a bus ride when a group of white guys poke fun at the demonstrators. Such moments are fleeting on the page, and it’s up to the reader to give weight to what is placed before them. 

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Yet The Book of Form and Emptiness is not a sedentary read. Use of second-person “we” when Book speaks summons the novel’s reader inside of an ongoing narrative, allowing them to become both a character and the writer of the story they’re simultaneously absorbing and anticipating as they turn the page. Perhaps imagining a diverse readership, Ozeki notes that books “can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.” The voice of the Book shifts into first-person “I” in the conclusion as Benny’s voice takes control of the narration. Likewise, Ozeki intends for the experience of reading to extend beyond a book’s binding. 

Benny’s Book imparts a message early on that all books “rely on you to embody us, and we exist because you can,” adding, “[t]he real stories—the ones that happen—belong to you.” The Book of Form and Emptiness nurtures stories of human connection—not excluding those inherited through things both collected and discarded—as well as the transcendent magic that so many words can conjure. If one accepts that a novel and its counterparts, limited by form, cannot act as a true looking glass for its reader, then the value of a book is instead measured by a limited number of words that seek to convey and impact our shared realities. In the liminal space of form and emptiness, it is stories, especially those bound safely inside books, that tether us to life. Ozeki’s novels tend to speak for themselves. After all, “[b]ooks will always have the last word, even if no one is around to read them.”

The Book of Form and Emptiness
by Ruth Ozeki
Published on September 21, 2021

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