On one level, Ruth Ozeki’s latest is the story of a mother and son dealing with grief. Benny Oh and his mother Annabelle lose their father/husband Kenji, a musician, after he falls asleep after a gig in the alleyway outside their home and is driven over by a truck.
Annabelle reacts by becoming something of a hoarder. Her job is to maintain a sort of news archive, composing of newspapers at first but gradually extending to include DVDs of 24 hour news footage, which she does from her home, bags filling the halls and lining the stairs and spilling out on to the front stoop where rats are occasionally seen scurrying about to the dismay of the landlord’s grumpy son.
Benny, in his turn, starts to hear voices. More specifically, Benny starts to hear the voices of things all around him. The window, his shoes, a pencil – quite literally everything – until it feels like his head will explode. Inevitably, Benny still being a kid, this is not easy to deal with and he struggles, in school, at home, to contain everything that is going on. Before long, he’s seeing doctors, taking medication, getting all kinds of shit from kids at school and his relationship with his mother really starts to suffer.
That is only one level of the book, though. You need to filter all of the stuff you know at this point through a prism that is two parts Haruki Murakami and two parts Banana Yoshimoto with maybe a smidge of Paulo Coehlo thrown in for good measure. Alongside all of the above, you also have the presence of The Book, a character as much as Benny and Annabelle, who is in dialogue both with the reader and with Benny, who is also in dialogue with us and The Book.
But that’s not all. You also have to factor in the presence of another book, Tidy Magic (which is voiced by Ozeki herself in the audiobook), which is a sort of self-help book written by a Japanese zen nun (whose story we learn and who eventually becomes a character in the latter stages of the novel as her book starts to do well in the US and she is offered a TV show pilot to film for an American audience, which causes her a few problems). Annabelle (who is a kind of magpie person forever given to picking up odd gewgaws and bits of ephemera if they catch her eye) has a love/hate relationship with Tidy Magic (which appeared to fling itself into her arms in a bookstore), sporadically tidying one minute and then flinging the book across the room the next.
There’s more. Benny starts to skip school and hang out at the library where he enjoys immersing himself in all kinds of books. He also starts to fraternise with a girl called Alice who calls herself The Aleph after a Borges story and an old man in a wheelchair called the Bottleman. Between them, they open up Benny’s world to songs by Laurie Anderson and books by Walter Benjamin and ferrets and love and poetry and, you know, the big questions, like what is real?
If you’ve got this far and you’re thinking why, that sounds like one spicy plate of meatballs, I want to tuck in – then you’ll probably enjoy yourself. Ozeki is a good writer and the portions of the book fronted by The Book read like a fairly straightforward novel. The more fantastical elements of the novel (the crying window, the room in the library where all of the words of the nascent books come alive) are ok too. For me, the minor problems that exist with the book exist in the more new age-y, spiritual, hippie-dippy sections. Annabelle, as a character, might put years on you at times (as she did me).
The Book of Form and Emptiness is a longish book, clocking in at about five and a half hundred pages, so this is a novel you spend time in the company of. It may have been, if it were a hundred pages (or even two hundred pages) shorter I would have had a better time and been more forgiving. As it was, by the time I reached the end, I was glad to have reached the end. It felt like a bit of a slog. It’s also worth saying that the sort of magical breadcrumbs littered throughout the first half of the novel made me feel like we were going to go somewhere a little bit wilder and when it settled down to tell a story of a few offbeat sorts contending with all manner of local bureaucracy, there was a sense that I wanted more.
Any Cop?: Don’t get us wrong. It’s pleasant and thoughtful and Ozeki is on the right side of history (The Book is an enemy of climate change and disaster capitalism and all the rest of it so we mightily applaud that) – but it’s also long, a bit daft at times and, if we’re being honest, it feels like the kind of novel that would like to be mis-shelved alongside the books about crystals and homeopathy in your local bookshop.