The Book of Form and Emptiness

I kind of assumed that books know everything, but maybe you’re a stupid book, or a lazy book, the kind that starts in the middle because you don’t know how a story begins and can’t be bothered to figure it out. Is that it? Is that the kind of book you are?

Books do not exist in a singular state, after all. The notion of “a book” is just a convenient fiction, which we books go along with because it serves the needs of the bean counters in publishing, not to mention the ego of writers. But the reality is far more complex. Of course there are individual books—you may even be holding one in your hand right now—but that’s not all we are. At the risk of sounding full of ourselves we are the One and the Many, and ever-changing plurality, a bodiless flow. Shifting and changing shape, we encounter your human eye as black marks on a page, or your ear as bursts of sound. From there, we travel through your minds, and thus we merge and multiply.

I loved Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being when I read it back in 2018 so when I learned that she had a new novel this year I bought it without so much as bothering to find out what it was about. I was not disappointed.

The short description of The Book of Form and Emptiness is that it is a conversation between a boy and his book. That boy, Benny Oh, is the child of Annabelle, a big, blond American woman who gave up her ambition to become a librarian after she became pregnant, and Kenji, a Japanese clarinet player in a jazz band. One night when Benny was 12 his father stumbled home, fell asleep in the street outside their small house, and there was killed by a chicken-truck that didn’t see his body laying there. Annabelle and Kenji were in love, but they had been fighting and he was stoned.

Suddenly, Annabelle finds herself a single mother of a teenaged son, trying to support them both with her job cataloging the news. She is well-meaning, but finds it hard to keep up with everyday tasks. The house starts to accumulate junk, the kitchen becomes a mess, and she ceases to keep up with her appearance.

One year later, Benny begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects.

So begins a story spanning most of Benny’s teen years that weaves together a challenging mother-son relationship, mental institutions, Buddhist philosophy, a Marie Kondo stand-in book called Tidy Magic (written by a Buddhist monk), a homeless poet-philosopher named Slavoj who he calls Bottleman after the bottles tied to his wheelchair, and Benny’s first love, a young woman, artist, and drug-addict, who goes by Aleph and has a non-binary, gender-fluid ferret named TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). It is a lot.

You think he’s this crazy old hobo, but he’s not. He’s a poet. And a philosopher. And a teacher. And it’s not him that’s crazy, Benny Oh. It’s the fucking world we live in. It’s capitalism that’s crazy. It’s neoliberalism, and materialism, and our fucked-up consumer culture that’s crazy. It’s the fucking meritocracy that tells you that feeling sad is wrong and it’s your fault if you’re broken, but hey, capitalism can fix you! Just take these miracle pills and go shopping and buy yourself some new shit! It’s the doctors and shrinks and corporate medicine and Big Pharma, making billions of dollars telling us we’re crazy and then peddling us their so-called cures. That’s fucking crazy…

However, The Book of Form and Emptiness actually has a simple structure. The book narrates events in discussion with an older Benny who corrects, critiques, and queries what it writes, and interspersed with excerpts from Tidy Magic. In turn, this simplicity allows Ozeki to weave a story that blurs the boundaries between the real and the fantastical, very much like she did in A Tale for the Time Being.

Most of that blurring centers on the person of Benny, who suffers very real consequences from both sides. On the one side, objects have desires. When scissors want to cut, the question is what they cut. On the other side, the “respectable” adults in his life are concerned by what is happening to him and want him medicated. The exception is Slavoj, who tries to help Benny hear the world without being controlled by it.

What I love about Ozeki’s novels, is how she also captures simple, powerful, human emotions. Here, the beating heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Annabelle and Benny. She frequently embarrasses Benny, whether by the condition of their home, by her weight, or by her inability to make sure that they have milk in the fridge. At the same time, Annabelle’s sole objective for most of the novel is to give Benny everything, with the result that she never has a chance to process the death of the love of her life. Even if she understood everything going on with Benny, which is a much more extreme version of going through puberty that she most certainly does not, Annabelle simply doesn’t have the capacity to help him. The result is a downward spiral for both that at times had me cringing because it recalled arguments I had with my mother at roughly the same age.

But it was too late. The door slammed. He clattered down the rotten wooden steps, out the flimsy gate, and went careening down the darkening alley. The thin thread of her apology trailed behind him, straining, straining, until finally he outran it, and it snapped.

Together these pieces form a compelling, funny, weird, and challenging story that also works as a meditation on objects and purpose. The Book of Form and Emptiness is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

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I recently finished Caliban’s War, the second of the Expanse books, and am now reading Ken Liu’s The Veiled Throne and David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, two hefty tomes that should keep me occupied for a few days.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

“That’s an interesting idea,” he says. “I’ve always thought time was a little bit iffy, myself.”

Ruth is a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver and their cat she calls Pest. She is struggling to find words for her latest book, a memoir, when she finds a curious package washed up on shore after a storm. The Hello Kitty lunchbox contains the diary of a teenage girl from Japan tucked inside the covers of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, along with assorted other mementos. Suspecting the diary to be detritus from the 2011 tsunami, Ruth begins to read only to discover a mystery.

The diary belongs to Nao. She grew up in Sunnyvale California during the dot-com boom, but when her father’s company laid him off they returned to Japan where she was an outsider, brutalized psychologically and physically by classmates and totally without friends. Making matters worse, they went from affluence to poverty, her father attempted suicide, and Nao fell in with call girls. She declares her intention to kill herself, too, but only after telling the story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a 104-year old “anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era” and whose son was a multi-lingual philosophy student conscripted into being a Kamikaze pilot during World War 2.

The confluence of events causes Ruth to fear for Nao’s life and she begins an obsessive search to find this person who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere online. Things don’t add up about about how the diary arrived on the shores of the island, and there are questions about the timeline between the chronological hints that Nao gives and the urgency that Ruth feels. The only available leads are in the diary, so Ruth has no choice but to keep reading.

A Tale for the Time Being largely unfolds in alternating chapters between an annotated translation of Nao’s diary and Ruth’s hunt. Woven into the narrative is both explicit and implicit commentary about time. Ozeki invokes both Quantum Mechanics and Zen moments, the different speeds of real life and the internet, and balancing the pace of life in New York and Tokyo with an island in the Pacific Northwest and a dilapidated Buddhist monastery. Finding the strength to accept, forgive, and adapt to the flow of time is, as Nao might say, an important superpower.

Similarly, there is commentary about life versus the written word. All three main female characters wrote books that reflect something personal: Nao’s diary, Jiko’s semi-autobiographical novel, and Ruth’s memoir that she is struggling to write. Ruth is taken by Nao’s self-presentation of her suffering, struggles that may well be accurate, but A Tale for the Time Being, a novel by Ruth Ozeki, blurs the line between the fiction of the novel and the memoir that Ruth is struggling to write.

These words are insufficient to express how much I enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being. There are scenes that are difficult to read, particularly with how poor Nao suffers, but these moments of suffering are balanced by moments of wisdom and serenity. I had a few issues with the plot points transitioning to the final resolution and thought that some of the symbolism came across as overwrought, and yet the beauty, the pain, and the relationships left behind a trail of emotional devastation that left me wanting to sit zazen and meditate. I have finished four novels so far in 2018 and A Tale for the Time Being is easily my favorite, an early front-runner for my top reads of the year.

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I am between books for the few hours during which I am writing this, having just finished Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road this morning. The short version is that it was a good reprieve from the emotional power of A Tale For the Time Being.