American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki is a film-maker, a Zen priest and a teacher of writing. Her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker prize. In this, her fourth, everything possesses – everything is made up of – language. Every single thing is, in some sense, writing a book.
Benny Oh is still a boy when his father Kenji, a Korean-American jazz musician at the time a little the worse for wear from drink, is run over by a chicken truck in an alley behind their house on the edge of Chinatown. At the crematorium, all Benny can think to ask his mother Annabelle is: “You going to burn his clarinet too?” Even though the body in the coffin is not really his father, Benny concludes, he still can’t bear to see it “thrown into a fire”. So he runs away, following a voice that calls his name from “somewhere deep inside the building”. Later, he begins hearing voices from inside everything. Whether “metallic and grating” or “pleasantly inhuman”, they clamour for his attention, and they often want to tell him about their pain, their histories of misuse and abuse. Even the unloved leftovers in the refrigerator can speak, in “the groans of mouldy cheeses, the sighs of old lettuces”. Half-eaten yoghurts whine at him from the back shelf.
Soon, nothing is working for Benny and Annabelle. They still love each other but they fight. They fail to establish a new family culture. Where he can’t shut the voices up, she can’t let go of anything; where objects verbally harass him, for her they gather dust. For both of them, Kenji’s face grows less easy to see. Annabelle prepares to make a “memory quilt” out of his clothes. Strewn over her bed, Kenji’s old shirts, it seems to his son, are already “trying to self-organise into a quilt-like form”. But in the end, without Kenji to energise them, neither his son nor his widow can tidy their lives. After a year of the voices, Benny’s own attempts to self-organise seem doomed. When he can no longer concentrate at school, he is first diagnosed with ADHD; then, after he has stabbed himself with some particularly snarky Chinese scissors, as suffering “the prodromal phase of schizoaffective disorder”.
By page 50, Ozeki has sold us on the articulate object, and begun to establish a complex neurodivergent subjectivity. Benny’s journey into the schizoaffective leads him to a local library, where he meets a shaven-headed girl known as The Aleph; TAZ, her non-binary ferret companion; and Slajov the Bottleman, an old drunk in a wheelchair who claims to be a famous Slovakian poet and a conduit to the truth about things. These three come and go mysteriously, their lives a secret drama of situationist intervention. Benny’s adventures in the community they have created out of books remind us vividly of Borges but also of Russell Hoban, Tim Powers or early Thomas Pynchon. “What’s real?” is a good question to ask, the Bottleman says, after he has inveigled the boy into asking it: and on one level it’s the central question of our own relationship with Benny. What, in his life as presented here, is real? Are his voices real? Are The Aleph and her ferret real? Is their whole fragile conspiracy against the Real real? Are parts of the library even there? For Ozeki the Zen Buddhist, perhaps, the answer is that only transience can ever be permanent.
The Book of Form & Emptiness is huge. Around Benny and Annabelle’s life of precarity and confusion, Ozeki folds 500 or so pages of postmodern diversions and inserts, touching on Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, the problem of space junk, issues of adolescent masculinity and sexual consent, and the sightlines and boundaries of atypical creativity. Meanwhile, the novel itself addresses the reader; holds arguments with its own characters; delivers its Ted Talk on the importance of books, and quietly teases everyone else invested in the process of writing and reading them.
These elements are arranged in overlapping dialogues with one another, and with Zen. They speak in tones that are humane but always calm and unexceptional. “Dread,” Ozeki will tell us, “set in like bad weather”; or, “She tried to remain positive.” The stylistic landscape is economical and unfussed – minimalist but not performatively so. If it’s sometimes hard to tell who the book is addressing – perhaps an intersectional demographic of children’s librarians and creative writing students – it’s even harder not to like Ozeki’s calm, dry, methodical good humour and wit, her love affairs with linguistics and jazz and the absurd, her cautious optimism, her gentle parodies.
What she is best at conveying, though, is the tidal flood of human life and the absurd, unwieldy scurf of manufactured objects that has accompanied it through the Anthropocene. You hang on to your things in case you’re swept away by the water and become like a thing yourself. What can be relinquished and what can’t?
At base, this is a simple story about the links between poverty, mental health and loss. It’s often heartbreaking, but we would be wrong to interpret Annabelle and Benny’s struggles as a descent. Ozeki is carefully celebrating difference, not patronising dysfunction. Out of their fractured relations, she makes something so satisfying that it gave me the sense of being addressed not by an author but by a world, one that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in tenuous parallel to ours: a world built out of ideas that spill into the text like a continuous real-time event. The voice of a commentary on the present – or of the commentary of the present upon itself.