The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki


I loved Ruth Ozeki’s previous book, A Tale for the Time Being for several reasons, one of which was that it had ideas “complicated enough to make my head hurt.” Thinking about this one is best approached by talking about its various elements. But first, the framing story:  in an unnamed city in the U.S. Annabelle married the beloved Kenji Oh, a Korean-Japanese musician. When their son Benny was 14, Kenji was killed when he was run over by a truck. A year later Annabelle is spiraling down through hoarding and Benny is hearing inanimate objects speak to him.

A very important element is “books.” The story is told mainly by “The Book,” introducing us to the way things look to books:

But what a sweet story it is! And in the end, to us, that’s what really matters. That’s what books are for, after all, to tell your stories, to hold them and keep them safe between our covers for as long as we’re able. We do our best to bring you pleasure and sustain your belief in the gravity of being human. We care about your feelings and believe in you completely.

Given Annabelle’s growing hoarding problem, the book Tidy Magic jumps into her shopping cart and introduces the element of the Zen monk Aikon Konishi, a clear reference to Marie Kondo and her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Aikon writes her wildly popular book both to help people and to support the monastery where she lives in Japan. As with the Marie Kondo book and TV appearances, Aikon has a problem when she hints at reducing the book hoarding problem. I learned in Jennifer Howard’s book that Kondo’s suggestion to reduce book clutter was greeted with a deafening outcry, including caps-inflected tweets.

When Benny was in a psychiatric facility for kids, he came to know a girl named Alice who called herself The Aleph. This took me to the Borges story, described in Wikipedia here, that was helpful in identifying this element. In the Borges story the Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. (Reading more about that makes my head hurt.) Alice turns up magically in key moments to Benny to send him in a particular direction. Benny falls in love, after all, he is 14.

The feelings of inanimate objects is an element that runs through the book. Annabelle liked them and when she saw them in the thrift shop, she wanted to give them a loving home. Benny was especially sensitive. “He liked to iron because the iron loved the ironing board, and the ironing board loved the iron, and they got lonely when they were apart.”

The library is another important element. Annabelle had wanted to become a librarian, Benny takes refuge there when school is too much for him and when he is there, the voices of things are quieter. And of course the Book is comfortable there. A librarian who remembered Annabelle and Benny from his time there as a child is key to helping the two of them just as all appears to be lost for those two.

The Buddhist element comes up again near the end when Aikon identifies Benny as Kannon, her monastery’s saint of compassion who with her thousand arms and eleven heads could hear the voices of things crying out.

I found the sections the Book tells about Annabelle as she finds reason to buy another snow globe, forgets to buy milk at the grocery, and lets trash build up all over her house to be very uncomfortable. When Tidy Magic first appeared in her life, I was hopeful, but it was a long slog before her trajectory changed.

Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness, Penguin, 2022, 560 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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