"the book of form and emptiness," by ruth ozeki

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Ruth Ozeki shows once again the Buddhist path to happiness in The Book of Form and Emptiness. As in 2013’s touching and memorable (and short-listed for the Booker) A Tale for the Time Being, Buddhist principles make a powerful appearance and form an influential background voice, deeper even than the voices heard by Form and Emptiness’s hero Benny. Our compassionate author offers to take us, her Kindergarten class, to a portal where The Way is apparent, in all its enigmatic glory and deceptive simplicity. It is the path on which young Benny takes his first confused, halting steps. Do yourself the everlasting service of picking this brilliant book up.

Benny’s father, Kenji, is fatally injured when run over by a delivery truck. Benny, a fourteen year-old at the time, and his mother Annabelle, must make a way for themselves in the world, bereft of the beloved and outgoing husband and father. Unfortunately, they enter a downward spiral, which forms the tense energy of the book.

Annabelle falls into a depression when she cannot keep up with the demands of her job; their duplex, in an unnamed West Coast city (but resembling San Francisco) becomes impassibly clogged with the trash bags containing her work-related archives. Benny begins to show schizoaffective symptoms: objects begin to speak to him—unhappy disused pots and pans, an angry pair of scissors, his scruffy second-hand shoes.

We focus on Benny’s halting and harrowing journey. He doesn’t trust the mental health system and doesn’t tell his doctor the truth. His doctor, in turn, launches Benny on an evolving cocktail of psychoactive drugs, which only makes his path murkier. Help shows up in the form of the Aleph, an alluring, substance-abusing girl a few years older than Benny. She’s allied with the “B-man,” a one-legged, homeless older Slavic gentleman whose real name is Slavoj.

In their way, the pair try to care for Benny and guide him, in spite of how difficult he makes it. Along the way Benny’s mental state deteriorates, in large part because of his medications. He’s injured on more than one occasion, spends nights away from home, ditches school for weeks at a stretch and participates in a riot in the wake of the 2016 election. While objects become central to Benny’s life and consciousness, his mother’s lethargy and depression causes her life and home to become inundated by them. She hangs on to Kenji’s worn flannel shirts because she plans a memorial quilt; she doesn’t throw anything out. And her job generates countless trash bags full of paper files, floppy drives, CDs, and DVDs. She feels no ability to cope with the growing clutter that chokes her home and her life. She even looks to buy more knick-knacks to try to feel better.

And here we come one of story’s main thrusts: in spite of the highly diverting profusion of things in our lives, and the seeming demands they make on us, we are in fact, each an integral part of a universe full of atoms, some of which have somehow helped us achieve consciousness. We’re just complex creatures precipitating out of stars’ life cycles. The things that speak to Benny—cranky file prongs and amiable rubber ducks, dismayed shards of glass and angry baseball bats—somehow show that human fabrication is no less a process of this universe, as much as the economic and social structures would like us to treat them separately.

Benny is the obvious protagonist throughout, but on reflection, I admit the centrality of Annabelle, too. Both lives become dismayingly cluttered (albeit with different things), and both psyches strain under pressure. Annabelle finds a book (or rather, the book finds her) on the Zen practice of un-cluttering her home, and this becomes a reflection of her recovery. Benny receives help from two very different new friends, and learns that maybe he’s not so mad after all.

I’m not sure what Slavoj Žižek is doing in the story, except providing Benny with some broad guidance in interpreting what he sees and hears. The Slovene poet and philosopher studied among other things, the Real, which in philosophical terms means the actual and authentic, the unchanging and eternal. The nature and epistemological implications of the Real force themselves into Benny’s consciousness forcefully, front and center. As a follower and interpreter of Lacan, Žižek would be directly on point as a current thinker and psychologist to bring in to this story. Further than these basic observations, I can’t go without more study. It’s an alluring feature of this book, with its plethora of alluring features.

Ozeki has many ambitions for The Book of Form and Emptiness. One obvious priority lies in the area of Buddhist teaching, where one finds enlightenment on discovering their true nature as inhabitants of an incomprehensible universe, consonant and consistent with it, and that one is also a universe unto oneself. She pulls another of her theses from the psychology of unorthodox states. Her character Benny hears voices not only of  objects, but voices also flow freely in the air, untethered to things. She acknowledges what she calls the pioneering work of Drs. Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, “for their experience-focused, non-pathological approach to perplexing states and unshared experience.” She includes web addresses for two organizations which deal explicitly with the experience of hearing voices.

And she wraps all this up in a vivid, wrenching story of loss and recovery and coming of age. It’s full to the brim with compassion, full of surprises, gratifying to the end. Ruth Ozeki ranks in the very vanguard of current novelists.


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