Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel “A Tale for the Time Being” was short-listed for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and established her as a bold and empathetic writer with an interest in big questions and a flair for formal inventiveness. Eight years later, we have “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” a similarly ambitious and ingenious novel that presents a stinging exploration of grief, a reflection on our relationship to objects, a potent testament to the importance of reading, writing, and books.
Ozeki has described “The Book of Form and Emptiness” as a “cousin” to “A Tale for the Time Being.” Both novels focus on a quirky and endearing adolescent struggling with mental health issues, both incorporate Buddhist principles of interconnectedness and impermanence (Ozeki is a Buddhist priest), both combine daunting intellectual complexity and accessible big-heartedness.
The adolescent here is Benny Oh, 12 years old when “his father died and his mother started putting on weight.” That beloved father, Kenji, a jazz clarinetist, dies in an ignominious way; on the way home from a gig, drunk, high, or both, he stumbles in an alley behind their Chinatown apartment and then is run over by a delivery truck. Earlier that evening, he’d had a bitter fight with his wife, Annabelle, over his addiction issues.
Annabelle and Benny are utterly shattered by Kenji’s death, and their grieving takes socially unacceptable and bizarre forms. Benny begins to hear voices, first his father’s, then those of objects, and is diagnosed with auditory hallucinations and schizoaffective tendencies. He does a stint in a pediatric psychiatry ward, where he meets an alluring performance artist called The Aleph, who also struggles with addiction and reintroduces Benny to a disheveled “hobo guy in a wheelchair” he’d seen on the bus who turns out to be a visionary Eastern European poet. Benny forges a doctor’s note to get out of school and hangs out in the library, where he embarks on more adventures with The Aleph and the poet.
Overcome with guilt about the fight with Kenji that preceded his death and anguish about her troubled son, Annabelle gains a great deal of weight, and her collecting and hoarding tendencies become major problems. As she begins obsessively buying art supplies, snow globes, and kitchenware to fill the emptiness in her heart, and the apartment becomes ever more cluttered and chaotic, she attracts the ire of both her son, who craves order and serenity, and her landlady’s son, who wants to evict her. Ultimately, child protective services see her as a threat to her child’s well-being and recommend that he be put in a home or foster care.
“The Book of Form and Emptiness” proceeds from two primary perspectives: Benny’s first-person narration and the first-person voice of The Book, a stylized personification of the book of Benny’s life. While he often resists The Book’s importunings, eventually Benny figures out his parents’ history and forges his own identity by listening to and conversing with The Book. Ozeki also interpolates lengthy excerpts from an in-story self-help book by a Marie Kondo-esque figure that captivates Annabelle. These pages from “Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life” allow Ozeki to both satirize and endorse Zen as a method of self-care.
The most endearing aspect of Ozeki’s novel is its unabashed celebration of words, writing, and reading. A library is one of the novel’s most enchanted settings, at once a refuge from the cacophony of objects that overwhelms Benny at home and in school and a magical portal to a world of self-discovery and unexpected connections. Annabelle’s e-mails to the author of “Tidy Magic” help her write her way toward self-knowledge and foster her resilience. Supported by his indefatigable mother, armed with Coping Cards from his therapist, inspired by his strange, elusive “friends,” and encouraged by his Book, Benny eventually comes into his voice and owns his story.
“What is real? Every book has a question at its heart, and that was yours,” The Book reminds Benny. In this surreal universe, books jump off shelves, boxes move on their own, magnetic words arrange themselves into poems, and objects are endowed with sensibilities, feelings, voices. The girl Benny meets in the hospital first appeared to him in a dream. A flock of perceptive and empathetic crows and a ferret named TAZ using they/them pronouns play prominent roles in the story.
In an interview, Ozeki has said that she’d hear her father’s voice after he died, and her book’s dedication reads: “For my dad, whose voice still guides me.” She’s clearly interested in examining the hallucinatory quality of everyday “reality,” the blurry line between grief and derangement, the rigidity of psychological categories and diagnoses.
Like Annabelle’s apartment, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” is charming and warm, dynamic and filled with love, but over-full and a bit undisciplined. It meanders and digresses and includes in its capacious portmanteau everything from climate change to consumerism, capitalism to communism, wildfires to school shootings, the Fukishima disaster to the work of Walter Benjamin, the horrific effects of bullying to the limits of our educational system, and even the leadup to and outrage following the 2016 presidential election.
But its heart, its ardent, beating heart, is huge. Ozeki’s playfulness and zaniness, her compassion and boundless curiosity, prevent the novel from ever feeling stiff or pretentious. Clever without being arch, metafictional without being arcane, dark without being nihilistic, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” is an exuberant delight.
The Book of Form and Emptiness
Viking, 560 pages, $30
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’