The Book of Form and Emptiness
- By Ruth Ozeki
- 560 pp.
- Reviewed by Mike Maggio
- September 24, 2022
Reality proves elusive in this captivating tale of a grieving mother and son.
“What is real? This was his philosophical question, the one the Bottleman had helped him discover, and he’d been practicing.”
Benny Oh is a boy of 12 when we meet him. His father, Kenji, a jazz clarinetist and sometime drug user, has just been killed — run over by a chicken-delivery truck in the alley behind their rented duplex. Benny’s mother, Annabelle, a naive and rather protective parent, is a hoarder about to get laid off from her job. In addition to dealing with the suppressed memory of her abusive childhood, she’s trying to make sense of her son, who begins to hear voices coming from just about everything: toys, shoes, the walls, and even the Book.
Especially the Book, which constantly talks to him.
Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness is a story about growing up. It’s also a story about mental illness. About hobos and homelessness. About philosophy and creativity. With a bit of Zen thrown in (Kenji is Japanese Korean), you have a novel that examines psychosis from an Eastern perspective.
For Benny ends up in the children’s psych ward (Pedpsy is what the kids call it) and on medication after medication to control what his doctor — a young woman who doesn’t listen and often seems clueless — calls “delusional episodes.”
And then there’s that Book. Along with talking to Benny, it talks to us. It is, in effect, a character in and of itself, a book within a book. As the story goes on, we, the reader, begin to wonder what is real and what isn’t until just when we think we’ve nailed it, we, like Benny, discover otherwise. It’s as if we, through the Book, are witnessing — even experiencing — Benny’s psychosis.
If psychosis it really is.
And that brings us to the fundamental question this novel explores: “What is real?” For Benny or for us. Ozeki writes:
“At school, when a teacher said something, he would ask himself, Is this person real?, and if he decided she wasn’t, he didn’t bother to respond. When he walked home from the bus stop, and the sidewalk starting talking to him, he asked, Are you real?, and if the sidewalk answered, he would contemplate its concrete nature, and appreciate how much work it did to bear his weight.”
As the story goes on, we meet Aikon, a Japanese fashionista turned Buddhist nun whose book (yes, another one; there are scores of them in this novel), Tidy Magic, mysteriously lands in Annabelle’s shopping cart one day and then seems to follow her around, reminding her of her hoarding problem — which she blames on her job — and offering her a way toward redemption.
In a twist of irony, Tidy Magic becomes a sensation, and Aikon winds up touring the United States, where she, coincidentally or not, meets Annabelle and Benny. And that’s when things finally start sorting themselves out.
If, indeed, Aikon is real.
And let’s not forget the crows that Kenji nurtured before his untimely death. Annabelle continues to feed them, and they become almost friends — so much so that, one day, when Annabelle falls and breaks her leg, they converge upon her, keeping her warm until help arrives.
Or so we are led to believe.
And then there are the refrigerator magnets which inexplicably rearrange themselves into messages Annabelle believes are from her late husband.
And so, that question keeps coming up: What is real? What are we and the characters we encounter supposed to believe?
With all confidence, I can say that The Book of Form and Emptiness is very real. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story of emotional growth filled with characters as real as anyone you would meet on the street. Except we are meeting them through the Book. And the Book, as we learn, knows all.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]