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Review: 'The Book of Form and Emptiness,' by Ruth Ozeki

Review: 'The Book of Form and Emptiness,' by Ruth Ozeki

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"The Book of Form and Emptiness," by Ruth Ozeki.

"The Book of Form and Emptiness," by Ruth Ozeki. (Viking/TNS)

FICTION: Inanimate objects speak in this thought-provoking novel.

"The Book of Form and Emptiness" by Ruth Ozeki; Viking (560 pages, $30)


Early in "The Book of Form and Emptiness," Ruth Ozeki's heady new novel, an off-course bird bangs into a classroom window: "THWACK!" The middle schoolers are stunned. One is particularly upset. Benny Oh approaches the glass. He whispers to it, then punches it. Why? The window was sobbing and "I needed it to stop," he explains.

Benny is an angry boy, but that's only part of the story. Since his father, Kenji, was killed in a truck accident, he's been getting an earful from inanimate objects. Library books wail for his attention as they're fed into a high-tech sorting system: "We are not units!" His mom's teapot disagrees that it's "short and stout." A pair of scissors taunts Benny until he jams the points into his thigh.

This last incident lands him in a psychiatric hospital, where he's prescribed drugs for his hallucinations. But something else is afoot, for Benny appears to be having real interactions with nonliving objects. The scissors, for instance, speak to him in Mandarin. Which makes a kind of sense — they were manufactured in China.

The author of the lauded novel "A Tale for the Time Being," Ozeki teaches at Smith College in Massachusetts. She's also a Zen Buddhist priest. This book ponders the very nature of things. Does the soul exist? Is it immortal? Do inanimate items possess a life force? How do we distinguish acute sensitivity from mental illness? These questions fuel a searching novel, one that combines a coming-of-age tale with an ode to the printed page.

Benny has grown-up tastes. He loves jazz and libraries. In between hospitalizations, he skips school and becomes friendly with bohemian teens and heavy-drinking poets, who encourage him to write, to channel the objects speaking to him. Words are "trapped inside" Benny, "looking for an exit," Ozeki writes. "That's the thing about words. They want to be out in the world."

Benny's despair over his father's death turns to rage at his mother, Annabelle. She clips newspaper articles for corporate clients, but in the early 2010s, the internet threatens her job. To cope with the stress, Annabelle, a budding hoarder, buys expensive snow globes.

As they try to keep their lives together, Benny and Annabelle spend their days surrounded by words. Consider this novel a rebuttal to those who say print is dead. For Ozeki's characters, books — particularly those printed on paper — are mighty, redemptive, unkillable.

Occasionally, Ozeki is overly clever. Books are among the objects that have humanlike consciousness, she writes. They identify as nonbinary: "Our pronouns are we, our, us."

More often, though, she's incisive on matters like consumerism and climate change. Meanwhile, her ruminations on life's greatest mysteries provide an elegant foundation for an intriguing story.


Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.

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