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The Book of Form and Emptiness
Cover of The Book of Form and Emptiness
The Book of Form and Emptiness
A Novel
Borrow Borrow
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction

“No one writes like Ruth Ozeki—a triumph.” —Matt Haig, New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Library


“Inventive, vivid, and propelled by a sense of wonder.” —TIME

“If you’ve lost your way with fiction over the last year or two, let The Book of Form and Emptiness light your way home.” —David Mitchell, Booker Prize-finalist author of Cloud Atlas
A boy who hears the voices of objects all around him; a mother drowning in her possessions; and a Book that might hold the secret to saving them both—the brilliantly inventive new novel from the Booker Prize-finalist Ruth Ozeki

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house—a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn't understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.
 
At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, Benny discovers a strange new world. He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.
 
And he meets his very own Book—a talking thing—who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.
 
With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot, and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz, to climate change, to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki—bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane and heartbreaking.
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction

“No one writes like Ruth Ozeki—a triumph.” —Matt Haig, New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Library


“Inventive, vivid, and propelled by a sense of wonder.” —TIME

“If you’ve lost your way with fiction over the last year or two, let The Book of Form and Emptiness light your way home.” —David Mitchell, Booker Prize-finalist author of Cloud Atlas
A boy who hears the voices of objects all around him; a mother drowning in her possessions; and a Book that might hold the secret to saving them both—the brilliantly inventive new novel from the Booker Prize-finalist Ruth Ozeki

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house—a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn't understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.
 
At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, Benny discovers a strange new world. He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.
 
And he meets his very own Book—a talking thing—who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.
 
With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot, and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz, to climate change, to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki—bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane and heartbreaking.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book

    PART ONE

     

    Home

     

    Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's

    passion borders on the chaos of memories.

     

    -Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library"

     

    The Book

     

    1

     

    So, start with the voices, then.

     

    When did he first hear them? When he was still little? Benny was always a small boy and slow to develop, as though his cells were reluctant to multiply and take up space in the world. It seems he pretty much stopped growing when he turned twelve, the same year his father died and his mother started putting on weight. The change was subtle, but Benny seemed to shrink as Annabelle grew, as if she were metabolizing her small son's grief along with her own.

     

    Yes. That seems right.

     

    So, perhaps the voices started around then, too, shortly after Kenny died? It was a car accident that killed him-no, it was a truck. Kenny Oh was a jazz clarinetist, but his real name was Kenji, so we'll call him that. He played swing mostly, big band stuff, at weddings and bar mitzvahs and in campy downtown hipster clubs, where the dudes all wore beards and porkpie hats and checkered shirts and mothy tweed jackets from the Salvation Army. He'd been playing a gig, and afterward he went out drinking or drugging or whatever he did with his musician friends-just a little toot, but enough so that on his way home, when he stumbled and fell in the alley, he didn't see the necessity of getting up right away. He wasn't far from home, only a few yards from the rickety gate that led to the back of his house. If he'd managed to crawl a bit further, he would have been okay, but instead he just lay there on his back, in a dim pool of light cast by the streetlamp above the Gospel Mission Thrift Shop dumpster. The long chill of winter had begun to lift, and a spring mist hung in the alleyway. He lay there, gazing up at the light and the tiny particles of moisture that swarmed brightly in the air. He was drunk. Or high. Or both. The light was beautiful. Earlier in the evening, he'd had a fight with his wife. Maybe he was feeling sorry. Maybe in his mind he was vowing to be better. Who knows what he was doing? Maybe he fell asleep. Let's hope so. In any case, that's where he was still lying an hour or so later, when the delivery truck came rattling down the alleyway.

     

    It wasn't the truck driver's fault. The alley was filled with ruts and potholes. It was littered with half-emptied garbage bags, food waste, sodden clumps of clothes and broken appliances, which the dumpster divers had left behind. In the flat, gray light of the drizzling dawn, the truck driver couldn't distinguish between the debris and the musician's slim body, which by then was covered in crows. The crows were Kenji's friends. They were just trying to help by keeping him warm and dry, but everyone knows that crows love garbage. Is it any wonder that the driver mistook Kenji for a garbage bag? The driver hated crows. Crows were bad luck, and so he aimed his truck right at them. The truck was carrying crates of live chickens to the Chinese slaughterhouse at the end the alleyway. He stepped on the gas and felt the body bump beneath the wheels as the crows flew up in front of his windshield, obscuring his view and causing him to lose control and careen into the loading dock of the Eternal Happiness Printing Company Ltd. The truck tipped, and the crates of chickens went flying.

     

    The noise of squawking birds woke Benny, whose bedroom window overlooked the dumpster. He lay there, listening, and then the back door slammed. A high, thin cry...

Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    July 15, 2021
    A boy who hears objects talking and his mother, who can't stop hoarding things, work out their destinies in a meditative tribute to books, libraries, and Zen wisdom. Everything starts going awry for Benny Oh the year he turns 12, "the same year his father died and his mother started putting on weight." It's not just pounds that Annabelle adds; she obsessively accumulates things--kitchenware, snow globes, it doesn't really matter what--to fill the void left by her husband's death. Meanwhile, the voices Benny hears in everything from coffee cups to windowpanes become so insistent that he unwisely reveals his unwelcome ability at school and winds up in a pediatric psychiatry ward. There he meets a girl called The Aleph, whose enigmatic notes lead him post-hospital to the local library and a quest for meaning directed by The Aleph and a homeless hobo who was "a super famous poet back in Slovenia." As she did in A Tale for the Time Being (2013), Ozeki counterpoints faultless contemporary teenspeak with an adult third-person voice--in this case, intriguingly, the voice of Benny's Book. "You do your job, and I'll do mine," Benny tells the Book, and their interaction drives the story. The Book connects Annabelle's hoarding to the looming ecological catastrophe slowly being triggered by human beings' carelessness and waste; the voices Benny hears, it suggests, are calls to recognize our kinship with the other beings on our planet. Annabelle is getting a similar message from a book that jumps into her shopping cart: Tidy Magic, "written by a real Zen monk." Ozeki's insertion of Zen teachings into the narrative is slightly contrived, but she underscores the urgency of her spiritual message by ratcheting up the physical-world tension for her characters, as Annabelle's stockpiling puts her at risk of being evicted from her home and having Benny placed in foster care. Benny's final assertion of agency provides a moving, albeit hasty, wrap-up for a novel that staggers somewhat under the weight of everything the author wants to say. Overstuffed, but serious readers will appreciate Ozeki's passionate engagement with important ideas.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 26, 2021
    Zen Buddhist priest Ozeki’s illuminating postmodern latest (after the meditation memoir The Face: A Time Code) explores themes of mourning, madness, and the powers of the imagination. Benny Oh, a 13-year-old boy, begins hearing voices after his jazz musician father dies in a tragicomic accident involving a truck full of chickens. The voices launch Benny on a quest of self-discovery at the library, where he meets a slovenly poet-philosopher called “the Bottleman” and his stunning, anarchic protégé, “the Aleph,” a young woman obsessed with Borges and the Situationists. The duo cause Benny’s life to become more chaotic and yet more thrilling as they encourage him to embrace his inner madness. Meanwhile, Benny’s mother, Annabelle, whose job for a media-monitoring agency requires her to clip and catalogue print newspaper and magazine articles, and who now works from home, starts hoarding, and the house’s clutter becomes increasingly overwhelming. Sometimes this reads like a simple coming-of-age tale, but Ozeki playfully and successfully breaks the fourth wall—Benny, embarrassed by a passage about him being bullied, says to “the Book,” “Can we just skip this, please?”—and she cultivates a striking blend of young adult fiction tropes with complex references to Walter Benjamin, Zen Buddhism, and Marxist philosophy. This is the rare work that will entertain teenagers, literary fiction readers, and academics alike. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Agency.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from August 1, 2021
    "Has it ever occurred to you that books have feelings, too?" As does every object in supersensitive Benny Oh's world. They also have voices, and how they plague him after the death of his Japanese Korean jazz-musician father, Kenji. A young teen, Benny is left with Annabelle, his big, blond, utterly bereft mother. Her dream was to become a children's librarian; instead, she labors as a media monitor. In a subconscious attempt to fill the void Kenji has left, she hoards things, filling their humble Pacific Northwest duplex with clamor and clutter, which is torture for Benny. He lands in a psychiatric ward, which leads to his infatuation with an intrepid teen artist who is devoted to her mentor, an aged, homeless Slovenian philosopher-poet. All three misfits find sanctuary in the public library. Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being, 2013) draws on her Zen Buddhist attentiveness as she writes with bountiful insight, exuberant imagination, and levitating grace about psychic diversity, our complicated attitude toward our possessions, street protests, climate change, and such wonders as crows, the moon, and snow globes. Most inventively, Ozeki celebrates the profound relationship between reader and writer. This enthralling, poignant, funny, and mysterious saga, thrumming with grief and tenderness, beauty and compassion, offers much wisdom. "Books are works of love, after all."

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    August 1, 2021
    "Has it ever occurred to you that books have feelings, too?" As does every object in supersensitive Benny Oh's world. They also have voices, and how they plague him after the death of his Japanese Korean jazz-musician father, Kenji. A young teen, Benny is left with Annabelle, his big, blond, utterly bereft mother. Her dream was to become a children's librarian; instead, she labors as a media monitor. In a subconscious attempt to fill the void Kenji has left, she hoards things, filling their humble Pacific Northwest duplex with clamor and clutter, which is torture for Benny. He lands in a psychiatric ward, which leads to his infatuation with an intrepid teen artist who is devoted to her mentor, an aged, homeless Slovenian philosopher-poet. All three misfits find sanctuary in the public library. Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being, 2013) draws on her Zen Buddhist attentiveness as she writes with bountiful insight, exuberant imagination, and levitating grace about psychic diversity, our complicated attitude toward our possessions, street protests, climate change, and such wonders as crows, the moon, and snow globes. Most inventively, Ozeki celebrates the profound relationship between reader and writer. This enthralling, poignant, funny, and mysterious saga, thrumming with grief and tenderness, beauty and compassion, offers much wisdom. "Books are works of love, after all."

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from August 27, 2021

    In this latest work from Booker Prize finalist Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being), young teenager Benny Oh is coping with the death of his Korean Japanese, jazz clarinet--playing father. As his white mother, Annabelle, descends into clutter, Benny starts hearing things speak--they seem desperate to express themselves. Benny finds quieter voices at the library and also encounters his own Book, which explains to Benny that it doesn't make him do things but is there to capture his story in all its fullness; this can at times provoke arguments between them. (The Book as protagonist is of course the book we are reading.) The Book also dismisses authors as nothing more than celebrity midwives with fingers. So even as it movingly relates Benny's struggles to reckon with his voices, helped by homeless Slovenian poet/philosopher Slovaj and a waiflike but tough young outsider calling herself the Aleph, and Annabelle's struggles to hold onto her son, this is also a story about how stories work. At the same time, the narrative--indeterminately set but with a slight West Coast feel--considers issues from consumerism and environmental disaster, to mental health and our relationship with Made and Unmade objects. Arcing over all is Benny's big question: How do we know what is real? VERDICT Rich to overflowing and utterly engaging, Ozeki's work wants us to listen to the world.--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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Ruth Ozeki
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