On Wednesday, Ruth Ozeki won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. She was in the shortlist with five other authors. Undoubtedly, Ozeki is a gifted writer but, is The Book of Form and Emptiness her best work yet?
Benny Oh is a twelve year old boy who hears objects talking. His mother, once happy and healthy, starts hoarding things and gaining weight. These are the direct outcomes of the untimely death of Benji’s beloved father, Kenny Oh. Life is tough but there are books, libraries, and Zen wisdom to turn to.
Benji’s mother, Annabelle, becomes a hoarder by chance – kitchenware, snow globes, newspapers – anything and everything is collected in hopes of filling the void left by her husband. Kenny was a musician and Benny makes up for his father’s silences by hearing the voices of inanimate objects like coffee cups and pencils. In a way, things speak to both Anabelle and Benny.
The voices are insistent (and insolent) until Benny can no longer bear it. A doctor decides that it is best to ship off Benny to a pediatric psychiatry ward.
“The minute I walk through the door of a Starbucks, the overhead fluorescent fixtures start buzzing with this anxiety of meaning, and the coffee beans start screaming, and I’m literally assaulted by the pain of paper cups and plastic straws.”
There he meets a girl named The Aleph. Out after a few weeks of psychiatric care, Benny strikes up an unusual friendship with a homeless man, who according to The Aleph, is “a super famous poet in Slovenia”. The hobo is also supposed to be a philosopher and revolutionary, and The Aleph, an ethereal free spirit. This is an odd triumvirate. Even though the homeless man is an adult, he is not the authoritative voice of the group.
“It’s not him that’s crazy,” she tells him. “It’s the…world we live in. It’s capitalism that’s crazy. It’s neoliberalism, and materialism, and our…consumer culture that’s crazy.”
Ozeki offers an interesting solution to the conundrum – the voice of the adult third-person belongs to Benny’s Book. It is unclear as to how this particular book was chosen to tell Benny’s story but it’s their interaction that holds all the narratives together. Sounds complicated? It really isn’t. Think of the Book as a landing on a flight of stairs where you pause for a moment to catch your breath – the voice of the Book prepares the reader (and Benny) for what’s coming next.
As is expected of any authority figure, the Book also tries to find a deeper meaning in Anabelle’s hoarding and the voices that Benny hears. The mother’s hoarding is likened to the looming ecological disasters that have been triggered by human waste and the voices that the son hears is an instruction to acknowledge our kinship with the things around us.
Ozeki the Zen priest Vs Ozeki the writer
Unlike the most stubborn of us, Anabelle and Benny realise that their oddities are a cause of concern. Benny does not protest his institutionalisation and Annabelle turns to “Tidy Magic”, a how-to book for a clutter-free home written by a “real Zen monk.” Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest – it is not surprising that she found a way to incorporate elements of Zen teachings in The Book of Form and Emptiness. However, her efforts have a more manufactured feel to it than natural.
Lacking for friends, Anabelle takes to writing to the Zen monk in hopes of comfort and advice. The sections featuring Anabelle are also overrun with excerpts from the “Tidy Magic”. I skipped these parts – they were unnecessary and stuck out like a sore thumb. In these bits, the advocacy for the Zen way of life seems to be the one-size-fit-all solution to very complex problems that the duo is challenged with.
I do not know Ozeki personally but provided that she is a Zen priest, I would like to believe that she too is…Zen. This is not a hasty presumption – she treats each character with great patience and gleans meaning from their peculiarities.
By contrasting Benny trying to hush the cacophony in his head and Annabelle feverishly hoarding things, Ozeki draws elaborate metaphors for our consumption frenzy – almost a disorder now with each of us owning much, much more than we need.
Ozeki, the animator
What Ozeki does brilliantly is (quite literally) breathe life into objects. The elements of magical realism in The Book of Form and Emptiness communicate Benny’s angst and sorrow when perhaps his words fail. A quiet child, who is bullied at school, the voices of these objects draw the attention of the adults to his needs.
Similarly, crows assume human-like qualities in the book. Once looked after by Kenny, the neighbourhood crows protect him (and later) Annabelle by covering them with their wings when the two humans find themselves helpless and abandoned on the road. There’s a wonderful synchrony to be found here – the potential of a symbiotic relationship between animals, objects, and humans if we only care to listen to each other. At the risk of sounding cliché, these scenes were my favourite. No movements, no dialogues – just vulnerable people finding solace in the company of animals they had once been kind to. So poignant.
A paean to books and reading
Ozeki borrows heavily from Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library”. Starting a new section with a quote from the essay affirms the relationship of the reader and their copy of The Book of Form and Emptiness.
With Benny’s personal relationship with the Book and great fondness of the library – Anabelle also often speaks about going back to school to get a degree in library sciences – books transform into something truly benevolent as opposed to other inanimate objects that have only brought chaos to the family.
By adapting Benjamin’s essay into the book, Ozeki points to the extraordinary powers of self-reflection and self-replication of the written word. So think about any book that you have read – it has served you both as a narrator and instructor. You turn to books for advice and laughter, they have been with you in sadness and joy. That is why you read.
“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories”.— 'Unpacking My Library' by Walter Benjamin (1931).
Is this Ozeki’s best work yet?
The Book of Form and Emptiness sounds glorious. It has elements that should really appeal to the modern reader – mental health, call for climate action, the need to declutter – yet the book lands shakily on its feet.
Regrettably, Annabelle’s hoarding problem replicates itself in the text. Just like the Oh house, the novel is overstuffed. There is an excess of nearly everything – plot twists, the number of times Benny runs away from home, and the number of pages.
It is juvenile to complain about the page count but I will reiterate what I have already said – the book could entirely do without the episodes featuring the Zen priest. They add nothing to the story and end up as distractions. At a length of more than 500 pages, it is easy to lose patience halfway through. A more temperamental reader might even abandon the book entirely. This is not to say that Ozeki rambles, rather burdens the text with its own ambitions.
Even after a long and arduous journey with the book, I had trouble forging any alliance with the characters. The Aleph and the homeless person fail to make an impression, and Benny is too angsty and flighty for the reader to really empathise with. In this regard Annabelle is a clear winner, she’s endearing and her earnestness to perform the roles of both parents are more likely to strike a chord.
So to answer the question asked at the beginning – no, The Book of Form and Emptiness is not Ozeki’s best work. In fact, this should not be your introduction to the author. Despite the Women’s Prize for Fiction honour, her best book remains My Year of Meats, followed closely by A Tale for the Time Being.
The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki, Cannongate Books.