In Ruth Ozeki’s fourth novel, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” Benny Oh is grieving the sudden loss of his father, a Japanese jazz musician. Benny hears the voice of his deceased father, and then becomes attuned to the voices of inanimate things that seem to embody his confused feelings. He even hears the voice of his Book — yes, the “Book” of the title is one of the narrators of this complex and enjoyable novel. The Book, an entity like a character with a point of view, speaks to Benny and also directly to the reader.
Because of the cacophony in his head, Benny, 14, is hospitalized briefly in a pediatric psych ward. Ozeki portrays the mental health issues with gentle acceptance, drawing on her own experience of hearing voices after her father’s death. The novel insists that Benny is not the problem in a world where he is bullied at school and the planet and human beings are suffering from sweatshop capitalism.
Readers of Ozeki’s work (her third novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 2013) will recognize her Zen-inspired apprehension of the world and playful storytelling style. Seattle readers might recognize aspects of Benny’s unnamed Pacific Northwest city, too.
In giving the Book a point of view, Ozeki creates a loquacious, animated voice with ideas about other books, the past, the need for human stories and the mutual needs of humans and books. “What is a story before it becomes words?” the Book muses.
With this well-developed voice, Ozeki plays humorously with ideas about what a novel is — about the development of a story, how it gets told, who tells it, who hears it and how books affect people. Benny is a character, but the novel includes a kind of foreword in his voice, about his own story.
After he is released from the hospital, Benny spends the summer at the public library. There, the voices in his head grow quiet “as if the words on the pages of the books had given the voices in his head something to think about, to contemplate in silence.”
He meets up with the cool mysterious girl he met in the hospital, an artist for whom he develops a crush, and the Bottleman, a homeless Slovenian poet. They become his friends and guides as Benny discovers his own voice.
Meanwhile, Benny’s mother Annabelle is a hoarder. Her job as a media monitor requires her to physically store in their home mountains of trash bags of clippings and DVDs of terrible things: wildfires, mass shootings, the spread of the Zika virus and a toxic presidential campaign. (These events, of course, ring familiar.) Annabelle not only hoards this physical work clutter, but she can’t bear to discard anything from her deceased husband’s life.
Woven into these developments is the story of Aikon, a Zen Buddhist priest in Tokyo trying to keep her monastery afloat. She has written a book about tidying up as a spiritual practice. Aikon’s book, which comes into Annabelle’s life in an amusing way, will remind readers of the philosophy of real-life tidying guru Marie Kondo. Aikon speaks directly to the materialist malaise plaguing her readers: “If you have too many things cluttering up your life and not enough space and clarity to live — then these simple Zen lessons might help. This book is not just about your belongings. It’s about living a life where you truly belong.”
Ozeki, who is a Zen Buddhist priest and filmmaker, takes up big ideas about this moment on our planet, but also offers close descriptions of memorable images that make the prose absorbing.
For example, Benny attends his friend’s sky burial for her beloved pet. The artist makes a snow globe showing a boy reading in a library as a gift for Benny. And, more than once, a clutch of neighborhood crows protect vulnerable human beings.
These images reverberate long after the reading, speaking to Ozeki’s broad and benign vision of connected beings.