ANMexican-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki is a filmmaker, Zen priest and writing teacher. Her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was nominated for the Booker Prize 2013. In this, her fourth, everything – everything is made up of – has language. Everything is, in a sense, writing a book.
Benny Oh is still a boy when his father Kenji, a Korean-American jazz musician at the time a little worse from booze, is run over by a dump truck in an alleyway behind their house on the edge of Chinatown. At the crematorium, Benny can only think of asking his mother Annabelle, “Are you going to burn his clarinet too?” Even though the body in the coffin isn’t really his father, Benny concludes, he still can’t bear to see it “thrown into the fire.” So he runs off, following a voice calling his name from “somewhere deep in the building”. Later, he begins to hear voices from everywhere. Whether “metallic and raspy” or “pleasantly inhumane,” they scream for his attention, and they often want to tell him about their pain, their history of abuse and abuse. Even the unloved leftovers in the fridge can speak, in “the moaning of moldy cheeses, the sighing of old lettuce”. Half-eaten yogurt nags at him from the back shelf.
Soon, nothing works for Benny and Annabelle. They still love each other, but they fight. They fail to establish a new family culture. Where he cannot mute the voices, she cannot let go; where objects verbally torment him, they gather dust for her. For both, Kenji’s face becomes less visible. Annabelle prepares to turn his clothes into a ‘memorial quilt’. Kenji’s old shirts, strewn across her bed, seem, it seems to his son, to “organize themselves into a quilt-like shape.” But in the end, without Kenji to give them energy, neither his son nor his widow can clean up their lives. After a year of voting, Benny’s own efforts to organize herself seem doomed to fail. When he can no longer concentrate in school, he is first diagnosed with ADHD; then, after stabbing himself with a particularly snoring Chinese scissors, because he was suffering from “the prodromal phase of schizoaffective disorder”.
On page 50, Ozeki sold us the articulated object and started establishing a complex neurodivergent subjectivity. Benny’s journey into the schizoaffective leads him to a local library, where he meets a shaved girl known as The Aleph; TAZ, her non-binary ferret companion; and Slajov the Bottleman, an old drunkard in a wheelchair who claims to be a famous Slovak poet and a conduit to the truth about things. These three mysteriously come and go, their lives being a secret drama of situationist intervention. Benny’s adventures in the community they have created from books vividly remind us of Borges, but also Russell Hoban, Tim Powers or the early Thomas Pynchon. “What’s real?” is a good question to ask, the Bottleman says, after enticing the boy to ask it: and on some level it is 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 there even parts of the library? For Ozeki, the Zen Buddhist, the answer may be that only impermanence can ever be permanent.
The Book of Form & Void is huge. Around the uncertain and confused lives of Benny and Annabelle, Ozeki folds about 500 pages of postmodern diversions and inserts, touching on Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, the problem of space debris, issues of male masculinity and sexual consent, and the lines of sight and boundaries of atypical creativity. Meanwhile, the novel itself addresses the reader; has arguments with its own characters; delivers his Ted Talk on the importance of books, quietly teasing everyone else who has invested in the process of writing and reading them.
These elements are arranged in overlapping dialogues with each other and with Zen. They speak in tones that are humane, but always calm and unobtrusive. “Dread,” Ozeki will tell us, “set as bad weather”; or, “She was trying to stay positive.” The stylistic landscape is economic and uncomplicated – minimalistic but not performative. If it’s sometimes hard to tell who the book appeals to—perhaps a demographic of children’s librarians and creative writing students—it’s even harder to appreciate Ozeki’s calm, dry, methodical good humor and humor, her love affairs with linguistics and jazz, and the absurd, her cautious optimism, her gentle parodies.
What she best conveys, however, is the tidal wave of human life and the absurd, unwieldy shell of manufactured objects that accompanied it through the Anthropocene. You hold onto your gear in case you get swept up by the water and become like a thing yourself. What can be given up and what can’t?
Basically, this is a simple story about the links between poverty, mental health and loss. It’s often heartbreaking, but it would be wrong to interpret Annabelle and Benny’s struggle as a descent. Ozeki carefully celebrates the difference, not patronizing dysfunction. From their broken relationships, she makes something so satisfying that it made me feel like I was being addressed not by an author, but by a world, a world that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in tenuous parallels to ours: a world that is made up of ideas that enter the text as a continuous real-time event. The voice of a commentary on the present – or of the commentary of the present itself.