Ruth Ozeki’s novels continue to evolve to include ever-greater explorations into themes of connection across time and space. While that might sound intimidating, she practically embraces the reader in her accessible prose as if inviting a friend on an exciting new adventure. In “A Tale for the Time Being” she connected a young woman in Japan with a writer in British Columbia via a Hello Kitty lunch box that floated across the ocean after the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster.
In “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” that terrible event continues to affect the characters—influencing the way they consider the permanence of their possessions, not to mention lives, homes, families and careers. One of the narrators of Ozeki’s much-awaited novel is a book (or perhaps all books). The book writes, “Think of us as a mycelium, a vast, subconscious fungal mat beneath a forest floor, and each book a fruiting body. Like mushrooms, we are a collectivity. Our pronouns are we, our, us.”
The book isn’t the only object that speaks. Benny, a teenager who’s lost his father, hears voices from baseball bats, windows, scissors, trees, shower heads and so on. The boy is driven to distraction by the voices he hears, and finds solace only in the library, and is reliant on a group of homeless people and drug addicts who visit the library in search of a peaceful haven. Benny’s mother, adrift after the death of her husband, is not able to provide the help Benny needs. She finds pleasure in the short release of adrenaline she receives when she purchases something, anything, and is drowning in piles of her own unthinking consumerism.
One day she purchases a book called “Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life.” (Yes, we hear from this book too.) Like the beloved Marie Kondo and her similarly titled book, this book offers guidance to rid oneself of unloved possessions. The Zen nun and author of the (fictional) tidying revolution mirrors KonMarie’s story down to the indignation over her encouragement to only keep books that make you happy (“That’s true,” says the fictional author), capturing the ridiculousness of faux-outrage over whatever reasoning a person might employ to keep or release a book.
Longtime fans of Ozeki will appreciate that in her arching career, she’s never lost sight of the necessity of caring for the earth, she has only broadened her literary subject matter to encompass the impact of materialism. Troubling out the meaning of these materials, these objects, these forms that we collect or purge or recycle is one of the many themes Ozeki takes up in this work. While Benny’s mother prowls the thrift store for a quick fix, Ozeki ponders “What makes a person want so much? What gives things the power to enchant, and is there any limit to the desire for more?” In her beautiful way she draws conclusions and examples from a wealth of sources, including a 1929 Presidential Committee on Recent Economic Changes that states: “Wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another,” she calls on Walter Benjamin and his musings on the various ways a person can acquire a book, she draws up an image by Paul Klee to connect the present with the past. She even gives us a glimpse of that Hello Kitty lunchbox, connecting this story to her previous one. “The Book of Form and Emptiness” is a book-lover’s book, one for the collection, one to hold in your hands and feel the spark of joy. (Kelly Roark)
“The Book of Form and Emptiness”
By Ruth Ozeki
Viking, 560 pages