BPS Review: The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki ( October 2022)
“This is both an extremely vivid picture of a small family enduring unimaginable loss, and a very powerful meditation on the way books can contain the chaos of the world and give it meaning and order. — Dave Eggers
A book that receives what seems like universal praise, either online or from acknowledged prizes and accolades. So why did a fair number of our readers want to see it run over by a truck in a dark alleyway? It certainly provoked a strong emotional reaction – both positive and negative. It was a difficult start, its density and confused narrative voice meant that readers really had to give it the benefit of the doubt… for maybe a hundred pages ….
A quick shout out of ‘themes in the book’ by the groups delivered no less than 26 topics, without even thinking too hard. Not a little ironic that one of the main ones is cluttering, then. Knowing what to keep and what to throw out becomes ever more poignant, and perhaps a little decluttering of the book might have helped too?
Whilst we disagreed on a lot about this book, we mostly agreed that Annabelle and Benny were hard to get close to, emotionally. It covered so much, but kept the characters (perhaps deliberately) at an emotional distance, from each other as well as the reader.
However, it manages to reach us in other ways. Ozeki’s insights into the hoarding mentality are excellent. She creates a vulnerability around Benny and The Aleph’s relationship that is touching, and she recognises and identifies emotions such as loneliness, and the legacy of abuse, beautifully. The absent father is as big a ‘character’ as the others in the book. It is a heart-breaking story at its core, but she manages to create warmth despite all of the crises that Annabelle and Benny are living through.
The most controversial of all, the book talking bits??! Annoying and preachy?! Or quirky and wise? – after all, we all agreed that different books ‘speak’ to readers according to their own mood, circumstance, or experience, so isn’t that just what Ozeki is trying to say?
And I haven’t even mentioned the Zen Buddhist ‘Marie Kondo’ character yet. This was perhaps the weakest narrative plot, but again she touches on some interesting spiritual aspects of closure after death (laying the ghosts to rest) and the pull of the commercial world and constant busyness versus Zen and the art of just being still.
Benny’s mental illness reaches a dark low toward the end of the novel, so the final upbeat finish felt a little too quick and tidy for many of us, but at the same time we needed the lightness after the dark! Ozeki made the language and the reality of mental illness quite accessible for us, and leaves us pondering the existential questions of what is real, and what is not? Who is actually mad and who is sane, in this crazy consumerist world? What is real and what is fiction?
A couple of weeks after the book is closed and I’m sure many of you are still thinking about it (well, those of you who haven’t burned it to cut down on your gas bills anyway).
(PS. just in case you’re wondering, 17% gave it a terrible score, 35% okay, and 48% good or great)