Collapse and find yourself


The teenager here is Benny Oh, 12 years old when “his father died and his mother started to gain weight”. This beloved father, Kenji, jazz clarinetist, dies ignominiously; on his way home from a gig, drunk, high or both, he stumbles down an alley behind their Chinatown apartment, then is hit by a delivery truck. Earlier that evening, he had argued with his wife, Annabelle, about his substance abuse issues.

Annabelle and Benny are devastated by Kenji’s death, and their grief takes socially unacceptable and bizarre forms. Benny begins to hear voices, first those of his father, then those of objects, and is diagnosed with auditory hallucinations and schizoaffective tendencies. He makes a stint in a pediatric psychiatric ward, where he meets a handsome performance artist called The Aleph, who also struggles with drug addiction and reintroduces Benny to a “vagrant guy in a wheelchair” he had seen on the bus who turns out to be a visionary poet from Eastern Europe. Benny forges a doctor’s note to get out of school and hangs out in the library, where he embarks on further adventures with The Aleph and the Poet.

Overwhelmed by the guilt of the fight with Kenji that preceded her death and the angst over her troubled son, Annabelle gains a lot of weight, and her tendencies to collect and hoard become major issues. As she begins to obsessively purchase art supplies, snow globes, and kitchen utensils to fill the void in her heart, and the apartment becomes more and more cluttered and chaotic, she draws her son’s wrath. , who thirsts for order and serenity, and for the son of his landlady. , who wants to expel him. Ultimately, child protection services see her as a threat to her child’s well-being and recommend that he be placed in a home or foster family.

“The Book of Form and Emptiness” proceeds from two main perspectives: Benny’s first-person narration and the book’s first-person voice, a stylized personification of Benny’s Book of Life. While he often resists the intruders of The Book, Benny comes to understand his parents’ story and forges his own identity by listening and conversing with The Book. Ozeki also interpolates long excerpts from a self-help book in the story of a Marie Kondo figure who captivates Annabelle. These pages from “Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life” allow Ozeki to satire and endorse Zen as a method of self-care.

The most endearing aspect of Ozeki’s novel is its unabashed celebration of words, writing, and reading. A library is one of the novel’s most enchanted settings, both a refuge from the cacophony of objects that overwhelms Benny at home and at school and a magical portal to a world of self-discovery and connection. unexpected. Annabelle’s emails to the author of “Tidy Magic” help her write her path to self-knowledge and promote resilience. Supported by his tireless mother, armed with his therapist’s coping cards, inspired by his weird and elusive “friends” and encouraged by his book, Benny eventually enters his voice and makes his story his own.

“What is real? Every book has a question at its heart, and it was yours, ”The Book reminds Benny. In this surrealist universe, books jump off the shelves, boxes move by themselves, magnetic words come together in poems, and objects are endowed with sensibilities, feelings, voices. The girl Benny meets in the hospital first appeared to him in a dream. A herd of insightful and empathetic crows and a ferret named TAZ using them / them pronouns play a prominent role in the story.

In an interview, Ozeki said she would hear her father’s voice after his death, and her book’s dedication reads: “To my father, whose voice always guides me.” She is clearly interested in examining the hallucinatory quality of everyday “reality”, the blurred line between grief and disturbance, the rigidity of psychological categories and diagnoses.

Like Annabelle’s apartment, “The Book of Form and the Void” is charming and warm, vibrant and filled with love, but too full and a bit unruly. It winds and wanders away and includes in its vast coat rack everything from climate change to consumerism, from capitalism to communism, from forest fires to school shootings, the Fukishima disaster to the work of Walter Benjamin, the horrific effects. intimidation to the limits of our education system, and even the preparations and outrage that followed the 2016 presidential election.

But her heart, her ardent, beating heart, is immense. Ozeki’s playfulness and madness, his boundless compassion and curiosity, keep the novel from feeling stiff or pretentious. Intelligent without being archaic, metafictional without being mysterious, somber without being nihilistic, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” is an exuberant delight.

The book of form and emptiness

Ruth ozeki

Viking, 560 pages, $ 30

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The anti-romantic child: a memory of unexpected joy. ”


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