The author has so much she wants to say that her narrative is sometimes as cluttered as the cramped half-house in which Benny’s mother, Annabelle, obsessively piles up unnecessary purchases. Fortunately, one of Ozeki’s gifts as a novelist is the ability to enfold provocative intellectual material within a human story grounded in sharply observed social detail. Her emotional engagement with her characters and her themes makes “The Book of Form and Emptiness” as compelling as it is occasionally unwieldy.
During his last year of junior high, the voices Benny hears become so insistent that he flips out in class, pounding on a windowpane that is crying because a bird hit it, and winds up in the pediatric psychiatric unit at the local children’s hospital. There he meets an older girl who calls herself the Aleph and enjoys subverting the hospital staff’s efforts to normalize their patients. Benny is intrigued by the slips of white paper she hands out with Fluxus-like directives that urge new perspectives on reality. (The question of what is real, first prompted by the voices he hears, echoes through the novel.) He’s even more intrigued after he’s discharged and finds a note from the Aleph in his pocket: “Come to the Library.” There, in the mysteriously powerful Bindery, Benny’s journey reaches a surreal crisis.
Anabelle’s crisis is all too real. She’s immobilized by grief for her dead husband and fear of losing her job and her home. The only thing that makes her feel better is buying things: teapots, snow globes, whatever. The stuff piling up in the house isn’t entirely her fault; the media-monitoring company for which she scans print articles has shut its offices and sent her to work from home, instructing her to save the paper sources as an archive. Her landlady’s grasping son takes the mounting mess as an excuse to threaten her with eviction. Annabelle tries to follow the advice tendered in “Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life,” a book that jumps into her cart during a shopping spree, but she’s overwhelmed by the massive cleanup required.
The Zen teachings seamlessly integrated into the story line of Ozeki’s previous novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” here seem a slightly redundant addition to the chorus of voices urging us to see the desolation manifest in our mania for possessions and the terrible consequences of viewing the Earth’s bounty as raw material to be exploited for human gain. The Aleph makes glass globes memorializing catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami to illustrate the horrors of “disaster capitalism” and consumer culture. “We are our planet, and we must love it completely,” preaches her mentor Slavoj, “a super famous poet back in Slovenia,” now homeless and wheelchair-bound in this unnamed West Coast city. The Book chimes in, decrying the “social hierarchy of matter” created by people to place “the Made,” things shaped by human hands, above “the Unmade,” things that exist in nature. “In the beginning,” the Book grieves, “every thing mattered.”
It’s unclear how this call to revere all objects relates to the Book’s equally fervent denunciation of the way humans have overloaded the planet with trash. With so many philosophical balls in the air, Ozeki’s ideas are sometimes as inchoate as the metaphor of form and emptiness she periodically invokes but never entirely elucidates. Like all artists, her flaws are intertwined with her strengths; she embraces complexity and contradiction. The Aleph and Slavoj voice legitimate criticisms of the social order, but she’s a troubled, drug-abusing teen and he’s an aging alcoholic. Annabelle is irritatingly hapless, but she can display unexpected resourcefulness and toughness. Benny is wincingly vulnerable when he pines for the Aleph, delightfully sassy when he spars with the Book. The Book itself has a marvelous voice: adult, ironic, affirming at every turn the importance of books as a repository of humanity’s deepest wisdom and highest aspirations.
The human drama Ozeki crafts comes to a satisfying conclusion; Benny and Annabelle work and grow to achieve their measured happy endings. The larger issues their stories raise remain unresolved, because there are no easy resolutions in life — or in the challenging kind of art practiced in “The Book of Form and Emptiness.”
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
The Book of Form and Emptiness
By Ruth Ozeki
Viking. 560 pp. $30