Of Loss, Literature, and Mental Health

“A book must start somewhere. One brave letter must volunteer to go first, laying itself on the line in an act of faith, from which a word takes heart and follows, drawing a sentence into its wake. From there, a paragraph amasses, and soon a page, and the book is on its way, finding a voice, calling itself into being. A book must start somewhere, and this one starts here.”

Thus commenced Ruth Ozeki’s fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Ozeki transports the readers to the story of Benjamin Oh, fondly referred to as Benny. Benny was your typical teenager. He was the only son of Kenji Oh and Annabelle Lange, whose lives intertwined one fateful evening at a downtown jazz club in the fall of 2000. Annabelle, who escaped from her hometown, was studying to be a librarian when she met Kenji Oh, a half-Korean, half-Japanese clarinetist. Kenji was on a tourist visa from Tokyo, visiting the city to check out the jazz scene. Annabelle, on the other hand, was forced by her date, Joe, to sing in front of the audience. She was not provided the option to choose what song she wanted to sing and before she knew it, Mein Liebling started to play. As Annabelle’s shaky vocals resonated, it was clear that Joe only wanted to humiliate her. What Joe did not expect was Kenji’s intervention. The rest, they say, is history. A couple of months after the unfortunate September 11, attacks, Benny was born.

But then, as Benny would protest, that was too much information. The focus of the story, after all, was Benny. When the story commenced, Benny was already twelve-years-old, and a regular student who was shorter than the average. He still manages to perform academically and he has friends. Or so he thinks. His young life would be turned topsy turvy following the untimely demise of his father. On the way home following a gig, drunk and high, Kenji was run over by a chicken delivery truck, resulting in his instant death. Loss and grief were new emotions that Benny had to process but his mother, who cherished her husband was anything but devastated. The evening before Kenji left for the gig, Annabelle and Kenji had a major argument.

“Oh, sure, you can say that acts of literature are a kind of impassioned boundary crossing, tooo, but literary acts are inherently disembodied, more notional and distributed. We rely on you to emmbody us, and we exist because you can. So while we are cognizat of your fingers riffling through our pages, and we can describe in words the bitter taste of coffee, or a piquant sace, or the salty semen spilled between our folios, we do not experience these sensaitons as you do – on your tongue, against your skin, inside your human body.”

~ Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness

Kenji’s death left a gaping hole in his son even though it did take time for Benny to manifest his grief. A year after his father’s death, something stirred within Benny, something that initially escaped his notice. Without any preamble, he started to hear voices from sources unknown. He shrugged it off – maybe it was his imagination? Maybe his mind was playing some tricks? That these voices were emanating from inanimate objects, the things that surrounded him, made the idea all the more ludicrous. He started blocking them off but the voices persisted, adamantly so. The more that Benny shuts off these voices the more that these voices intensified. He doesn’t understand what was happening to him but these voices were pushing him to the brink. On the other hand, he was starting to learn about the compunctions and behaviors of these objects, such as how his books wanted to be organized or how the socks don’t want to be parted.

Our Coping Mechanisms

The death of Kenji was a catalyst in the unraveling of the concerns that have been swirling around the family. While Benny was coping with his own concerns, his mother had to deal with her own growing concerns. Apart from dealing with a son who was in what was perceived as teenage rebellion years, Annabelle was worried about her job. The advancement of technology has made manual labor, just like her current occupation, irrelevant. We read about how she had to fight to stay in her job lest she compromises her and her son’s future. Lingering in the background is No-Good, the son of the landlord, Mrs. Wong. No-Good, with his mother bed-ridden after figuring in an accident, kept pushing for the eviction of Annabelle. Annabelle had a lot of worries and her worries made her neglect her son. Since the death of Kenji, a chasm threatens to alienate mother and son.

It did not help that Annabelle fell into depression following her husband’s death. She also started gaining weight. That she lost interest in the upkeep of her physical appearance only made Benny embarrassed of her, like any typical teenager would do. Annabelle’s concerns were further aggravated by her growing problem with hoarding. She has developed an unhealthy relationship with objects, constantly finding new things – snow globes, porcelain, rubber duckies – to add to her burgeoning pile of objects. Snow globes were her biases. Her hoarding problem was compounded by her refusal to part with a number of objects she has developed an attachment to, from Kenji’s clothes and things to Benny’s baby clothes to broken objects, such as teapots, that were beyond repair. As objects pile up in the Oh household, No-Good was finding more reasons to have them be evicted.

As object after object piles up in their home, the voices kept getting stronger, threatening to push Benny further to the brink. A cacophony of voices keeps invading the sanctity of thoughts, ranging from the angsty to the morose to the gleeful. When the worst objects convinced Benny to use them for harmful purposes, Benny found himself committed to the psychiatric ward. Out of the ward, Benny finally found calm in the local library, a place he used to frequent when he was younger. The library, where silence was the ultimate law, has become his form of escape from the noise that enveloped his home and the desolate atmosphere his shaky relationship with his mother has created.

“Human language is a clumsy tool. People have such a hart time understanding each other, so how can we even begin to imagin the subjetvities of animal and insects, and plants, never mind pebbles and sand? Bound as you are by your sense – so blunt and yet so beautiful – it is impossible for you to imagine that the myriad beings you dismiss as insentient might have lives, too. Books are in an odd position, caught halfway in beteween. We are sensible, if not sentient. We are semi-living.”

~ Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness
“Am I Real?”

It was in the library that Benny’s path converged again with The Aleph, an indie artist he met during his time at the psychiatric ward. Through The Aleph, Benny was introduced to Slavoj, a wheelchair-bound intellect. Slavoj, referred to as the Bottleman or B-Man, was a Slovenian migrant who has a deep appreciation for poetry, and philosophy. The interactions between the trio provided the philosophical intersections of the narrative. While there were undercurrents of one-sided romance, it was life, in general, that was the crux of their discourses. The Aleph and Slavoj were slowly taking Benny out of his shell and giving him a peek into the realities of the world. One profound question lingered at the back of Benny’s mind, “Am I Real?”. It was a question that would reverberate throughout the story.

“The first words of a book are of utmost importance. The moment of encounter, when a reader turns to that first page and reads those opening words, it’s like locking eyes or touching someone’s hand for the first time, and we feel it too. Books don’t have eyes or hands, that’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it.”

Adding complication to the question of what was real and what was not was an inanimate object, the titular Book of Form and Emptiness. On a night escapade in the library, Benny stumbled upon the book at the Bindery. The book was central to the novel as it was its primary narrator. Benny’s voice occasionally finds its way in the story, merely to provide clarification or elucidation on particular events the book might have misinterpreted. The discourses between the book and Benny rendered the novel an interesting structure while simultaneously underlining the role of books, reading, and literature in our lives. Another book, Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, played a central role in the story. It was, palpably, a reference to Marie Kondo, who has gained global renown for her books on organizing. Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher, and essayist, and Jorge Luis Borges, a prominent name in Latin American literature, also figured in the story’s discourses.

The novel was an ambitious undertaking. It explored the dynamics of mother and son relationships while grappling with the role of literature in our lives and raising awareness on mental health. On the fringes, Ozeki has covered a myriad of seminal and timely subjects, with Immigration, sexual abuse, racism, discrimination, and climate change all trickling into the novel’s discourses, in varying levels of impact. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, a subject of Ozeki’s third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was also woven into the novel’s rich tapestry. Through Annabelle, another relevant subject was underlined, consumerism and how people derive joy from buying things.

On the backdrop, a prevalent leitmotif was the obsolescence of several objects and jobs due to the advancement of technology. For instance, parts of the library, including the Bindery, were in fear of being demolished to make way for the new. The advancement of technology can also help in the upgrade of one’s skills, like in the case of Annabelle who has to learn new skills in order to keep her job. However, it was no safety net against the threat of retrenchment. One of the novel’s more interesting elements was the prevalence of crows, a bird that many cultures perceive as a harbinger of bad omens, sometimes even death. When Kenji was run over by the truck, he was covered by crows he has befriended. Contrary to other cultures, Japanese culture views crow as a symbol of family love and a divine messenger carrying good omens.

“Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty base, I hef created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem. In ze end, of ourse, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.”

~ Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness

One of the novel’s finer facets was how Ozeki transported the readers to the intricacies of the distressed minds of Benny and Annabelle. Their struggles, vividly portrayed by Ozeki and emanating from their loss, have led to a dysfunctional lifestyle. With her prose, Ozeki reeled the readers in, engaging them by making them sift through the story to understand what was real and was not. A catharsis towards the end provided clarity to the events that have transpired. In order for healing to happen, Benny and Annabelle must acknowledge their afflictions, and that they both need help. For Annabelle, she must learn to let go of the clutter, both physical and spiritual. For Benny, he must start to accept his father’s death. It was in the process of arriving at the conclusion that Ozeki craftily deluded the readers, making them doubt their own minds. It was a vicarious reading experience.

The innovativeness of the novel’s structure earned Ozeki nods. Her prose reeled the readers in, capturing their interest, piquing their curiosity. However, it was not without its flaws. Understandably so. The novel abounded with some unnecessary details. It could have been tauter by removing some of these intricacies. Their removal would be inconsequential to the flow of the story. Ozeki’s tendency for repetitions only made the book look heftier than it actually is. Benny’s angst, at times, can be misplaced, making him come across as unconvincing. His strong personality was, however, mellowed by his doting mother who, despite her struggles, only wanted the best for her son.

No novel is flawless but The Book of Form and Emptiness nevertheless delivered a lush story about a mother and son coping, in their own ways, with grief and loss. It was about two flawed individuals, both peerless, who must learn how to navigate an ever-changing landscape. The prevalent subject was mental health, which Ozeki managed to fully underscore and explore in her fourth novel. The novel was an ambitious undertaking, covering a myriad of subjects. While the novel shone the spotlight on the dynamics of a mother and son relationship, it also underscored a different type of relationship that we unconsciously build, the relationship we have with our material possessions. For The Book of Form and Emptiness, one of the highest forms of these interactions was our relationship with books and the relevance of literature in capturing memory and broadening one’s perspective:

“Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion and it’s every person’s task in life to break free. Books can help. We can make the past into the present, take you back in time and help you remember. We can show you things, shift your realities, and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.”

~ Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness
Ratings

81%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

I can’t recall when I first encountered Ruth Ozeki. I believe it was in 2015 when I purchased a copy of her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being. It was a random purchase but it has earned several accolades, which made it fine for me to read the book sans any iota on what it was. While I did appreciate the story, I can’t recall enjoying the experience. I think I had concerns with the execution or something. Because of this, I wasn’t too keen on reading her latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness when news of its 2021 release broke out. It did, however, pique my interest and I finally relented when I came across a positive review of the book. Before 2021 ended, I had my copy. What stood out in Ozeki’s fourth novel was its scope. It was vast ambitious, covering a vast territory of timely seminal subjects and themes such as loss, mental health and mental health awareness, the place of literature in our lives, climate change, and consumerism. It also grappled with the dynamics of families while underlining a different type of relationship, that of us and the things around us. The Book of Form and Emptiness was a complex story, and at times, it does feel implausible. Nevertheless, it provided an interesting and distinct reading journey.

Book Specs

Author: Ruth Ozeki
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 546
Genre: Magical Realism, Literary Fiction

Synopsis

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house – a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn’t understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, but others are snide, angry, and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.

At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, eBenny discovers a new world. He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many. And he meets his very own Book – a taking thing – who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot, and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz, to climate change, to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane, and heartbreaking.

About the Author

Ruth Ozeki was born on March 12, 1956, in New Haven, Connecticut to Floyd Lounsbury, an American linguist, and anthropologist, and Masako Yokohama, a linguist.

Ozeki graduated from Smith College in 1980 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Asian Studies. She pursued graduate work at Nara University after she received the prestigious Monbukagakusho scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Prior to pursuing a career in literature, Ozeki worked as an art director and production designer for low-budget horror movies. Ozeki next found employment in Telecom Staff, a Japanese production company, where Ozeki directed and also co-produced documentary-style programs for Japanese TV. Her second film, Halving the Bones (1995), was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It was also screened at several international film festivals.

In 1998, Ozeki made her literary debut with My Year of Meat, which was critically received, winning the 1998 Kiriyama Award and the 1998 Imus/Barnes & Noble American Book Award. Her second novel, All Over Creation (2003), was equally successful, winning the  2003 WILLA Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction and the 2004 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. A decade after her second novel, Ozeki returned with A Tale for the Time Being (2013). It earned Ozeki more recognition after the novel earned several accolades such as the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, the 2014 Dos Passos Prize, and the 2014 Canada-Japan Literary Award. The book was also named the first recipient of the 2015 Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award for the Best Foreign Novel of the 21st century. It was also shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Award. In 2021, she published her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Ozeki has also published a memoir, The Face: A Time Code (2016).

Ozeki has also been active in the academe. From 1982 to 1985, she taught at the English department at Kyoto Sangyo University. She also founded an English language school in Kyoto, Japan. She is currently teaching creative writing at Smith College, where she is the Grae Jarcho Ross 1933 Professor of Humanities. Ozeki is a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist Priest, earning her ordination in 2010. Ozeki divides her time between Northampton, Massachusetts; New York, New York; and Cortes Island, British Columbia. She is married to the German-Canadian environmental artist Oliver Kellhammer.