When does a book become real? And for that matter, what is real? These questions run through Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness as the main character, Benny, fourteen years old, struggles with the death of his father, adolescence and the voices of inanimate objects that he cannot shut out. The story is told by Benny, and also a book. The book not only narrates Benny’s story, but talks with Benny directly, or talks directly to the reader pontificating on books, the art of writing, the value of books and libraries, it gets a bit carried away at times. At some point everything and everyone seems to have a voice.
The book begins with a chicken truck running over Benny’s dad, Kenji, who is stoned and collapsed in the street. Kenji dies. Benny is left with his mother, Annabelle, who works from home for a news clipping service. She claims her job requires her to save old newspapers and magazines, but she has accumulated lots of useless stuff, dishes are piled up, there is little food in the refrigerator. She cannot let go of any of this stuff.
After Kenji’s death Benny starts hearing voices everywhere, windows, scissors, shoes are sharing their emotions with him. He tries to ignore them, but no luck. He goes to the public library, where books are better behaved. Nevertheless, an incident at school sends him to a pediatric psych ward, and thereafter a school psychologist who diagnoses him with schizoaffective disorder. He starts going to the library instead of school and makes friends with a young artist named the Aleph who he first met in the psych ward. He also makes friends with the Bottleman, a houseless alcoholic in a wheelchair claiming to be a famous Slovakian poet. The Aleph and the Bottleman like Benny and include him in a few field trips and many discussions.
Meanwhile, Annabelle, unaware that Benny is skipping school, starts each day full of good intentions, but is losing the battle in her efforts to clean up. “As the bus pulled away from the mall, she tried to feel proud of her self-restraint, but the feeling didn’t last, and by the time she’d gotten off at her stop and was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Gospel Mission Thrift Shop, her willpower had pretty much run out completely.” The landlord’s son threatens her with eviction. She is overwhelmed by the loss of Kenji, being alone and poor, and she now is at risk of losing custody of her son.
There is so much packed into this story. References to Borges, to Walter Benjamin, a take on the Marie Kondo approach to tidiness. Crows! The library, the book. Who determines what is real? Why and how do we form attachments to inanimate objects? We live in a world of retail therapy, we listen to voices telling and selling us stuff all the time. Oseki doesn’t judge, she treats Benny, his mother and the others with compassion. The kindness of this story is what reminded me of how much joy a book can give.