Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness is a novel made of voices—which, of course, is what all novels are. But for Ozeki, the power of voice has less to do with the singular, the individual, than it does with what let’s call the chorus of voices and beings that create (or re-create) the world. “When a sound enters your body through your ears and merges with your mind,” she wonders, “what happens to it? Is it still a sound then, or has it become something else? When you eat a wing or an egg or a drumstick, at what point is it no longer a chicken? When you read these words on a page, what happens to them, when they become you?”
What Ozeki is getting at is interconnectedness, the necessity for all of us to rely on one another, in ways both great and small. Such an idea also sits at the heart of her 2013 novel, the magnificent A Tale for the Time Being, which is constructed as a kind of pas de deux, interweaving the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao, who may or may not have perished in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, with a third-person narrative about a writer named Ruth, whose biography mirrors Ozeki’s own. The earthquake also surfaces in The Book of Form and Emptiness, as does Ozeki, after a fashion: at the public library where he takes refuge, the novel’s protagonist, a troubled adolescent named Benny Oh, repeatedly encounters “[a]n older woman…typing very fast on her laptop computer. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, part Asian like him, maybe, with black-framed glasses and gray-streaked hair.”
The Book of Form and Emptiness, however, is interested in a more complex, or expansive, approach to interconnectedness; it seeks to include the world of objects as well as that of sentient beings. This is the source of many of the novel’s voices, which come from utensils, windows, coffee cups—virtually every substance in the world. “It didn’t mean to kill the bird,” Benny explains to the principal of his junior high school after an incident in which a sparrow crashes into the plate glass window of his classroom. “It used to be sand.… It remembers being sand. It remembers the birds, the way their feet felt, walking. Making little tracks. It never wanted to be glass. It never wanted to be sneakily transparent. It likes birds, likes watching them from the window, so it was crying.”
In the vernacular of present-day America—Ozeki never makes the setting and chronology of the novel explicit, but it’s pretty clearly Seattle, in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election—a child who hears a window crying must suffer from some type of disorder: hallucinations, schizoaffective tendencies. Benny ends up medicated, admitted to a pediatric psychiatric unit after he is diagnosed. But this becomes a bit of misdirection—or, more accurately, a critique of contemporary culture’s inability to deal with grief. Benny, after all, is bereft after the accidental death of his father, a jazz clarinetist named Kenji. In the wake of this loss, Benny’s mother, Annabelle, also begins to decompensate. The less she is able to function, the more Benny begins to understand that he has to take care of himself.
And yet, Ozeki is far too skilled to frame her book so simply; Benny’s issues are debilitating and all too real. The spark of the novel, then, comes not from any false sense of easy redemption but rather from the boy’s immersion into an alternate society composed of the runaways and unhoused, who, like Benny, take refuge at the library. One is a street kid named Alice—or the Aleph, as she prefers to be known, a reference to the 1945 story by Jorge Luis Borges. Another is Slavoj, the Bottleman (modeled, one imagines, on Slavoj Žižek), an Eastern European poet who squats in an abandoned factory while spouting verse and philosophy.
“Do I think because you hear voices,” the Aleph asks Benny, “you’re going to end up like the B-man, a random old homeless dude in a wheelchair, with a missing leg and rotting teeth, who needs a shower and drinks too much and collects cans and bottles and begs for spare change?” This, it turns out, is Benny’s concern precisely, but Ozeki spins the moment, using it to crack open both the character’s preconceptions and perhaps our own. “You think he’s this crazy old hobo,” the Aleph continues, “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!”
Here we see what’s great about Ozeki: her ability to channel the voices that make her novel hum and sing. By the end, she’s created an expanding universe, a medley of characters and situations, all engaging and intersecting in ways that feel unexpected and inevitable at once. One such point of view belongs to the book itself, which narrates (as books do) many of the events here while also providing a nuanced meta-commentary. “[W]e’re your book, Benny, but this is your story,” that voice declares. “We can help you, but in the end, only you can live your life.”
To be sure, there are all sorts of ways for this to fall apart, but Ozeki is a masterful conductor, and The Book of Form and Emptiness presents a vividly constructed weave. At its core is the notion that stories are essential, and every one comes with a voice. “If even one person were left out,” Ozeki writes, “the world would be diminished.… The world is creative, endlessly so, and its generative nature is part of who you are. The world has given you the eyes to see the beauty of its mountains and rivers, and the ears to hear the music of its wind and sea, and the voice you need to tell it. We books are evidence that this is so.”•