Mistrust of the Inanimate
Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness (Penguin Books, 2021).
Ruth Ozeki’s novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, is a conundrum—at turns enraging, confusing, impenetrable, intriguing, luminous, and beautiful. Its protagonist, Benny Oh, is the precocious child of an American mother and an Asian father. His mother, Annabelle, though insecure and unassertive, has found happiness in the cocoon of her family. His father, Kenji, is a jazz-clarinetist and is a loving but free-spirited and somewhat irresponsible husband and father. Benny is kept safe and is content in the closed circle of his family group. This happy domesticity is destroyed, however, when Kenji, drunkenly returning home from a gig, lies down in the alley behind their house and is killed by a truck hauling live chickens. What starts as a romanticized fable of contented family life quickly becomes a different and darker kind of fable. And, like every fable, Ozeki’s novel is meant to teach a moral lesson; in this case, a statement about the material world and its discontents. Characters are oppressed and haunted by the tyrannical physicality of the objects surrounding them. The inanimate becomes insistent, intrusive, and even menacing, taking on power as it fills emotional, spiritual, and physical absences. What Ozeki seems to say is that trying to hold on to the material, or even caring about other human beings, inevitably results in suffering. This cautionary tale seems to tell us that it is much better to detach oneself from the world as much as possible.
Benny above all suffers because of his attachment to other people. Kenji abandons him through an avoidable death and Annabelle abandons him as she uses compulsive hoarding to protect herself from the reality of her loss. Benny is unable to acknowledge or deal with his own grief as he tries to cope with Annabelle’s increasing isolation and ineffectualness. He is completely alone; that is, until the objects around him begin to speak. From the beginning, the reality of the voices Benny hears is uncertain. For example, his first experience of hearing from inanimate objects occurs at Kenji’s cremation. Annabelle leaves her son in the care of Kenji’s bandmates while they play jazz tunes in his honor. Benny takes the opportunity to slip away, entering the crematorium and “listening for something else now.” He hears his father calling him and follows the voice to the crematorium chamber. There, he again hears Kenji say his name:
His dad sounded so sad, like he wanted to say something but it was too late, and indeed, just at that moment, Annabelle gave a nod and turned away, and the attendant stepped forward and placed the lid on the box. Benny pressed his palms to the window.
‘Mom!’ he called, slapping the glass.
As if of its own accord, the box began to move.
‘No!’ Benny cried…
Horrified, he watches his father’s body enter the crematorium oven as he screams and pounds on the glass of the chamber window.
This uncertainty unsettles us as we try to understand what kind of narrative we are reading—is it a sentimental tale of family destruction and reconstitution, a chronicle of juvenile mental illness, or a meditation on the inescapable burden of the material world?
Benny is convinced that he has heard his father during this incident and for a year afterwards, but his perspective is suspect. He is a child, subjected to the enormous trauma of witnessing his father’s death and cremation. Hearing his father’s voice could be the wish-fulfillment of a grieving child. Eventually, however, Kenji’s voice recedes and new voices take over. These voices, however, are troublesome rather than comforting. The night he first becomes aware of the voices, Benny wakes from a dream. He hears the shrill cries of a bag of Christmas ornaments that he accidentally breaks, then “the groans of moldy cheeses, the sighs of old lettuces, the half-eaten yogurts whining from the back shelf where they’d been shoved and forgotten.” The chorus of voices coming from inanimate objects continues to grow, but only Benny can hear it. He tries to make sense of what is happening and says:
Eventually I put it together that they were coming from the objects around me, and I decided they could be called voices because the things were still trying to say something meaningful, even if they weren’t alive. . . . I don’t know if it was me who learned to tune into the voices, or if the things of the world learned to express themselves in a way that I could hear. Probably both. Probably we trained each other. . . . Just as I was beginning to forget about them and think maybe I could be normal again, suddenly the stapler or an ice cube tray would make a comment, and then the next thing you know, everybody’s yakking away. Everyone’s got an opinion. Everyone’s got a story to tell.
Over time, of course, the cacophony begins to affect Benny’s behavior. One day at school, he stabs himself in the thigh with his school scissors rather than plunging them into his teacher as the scissors had been urging him to do. Hospitalized, he struggles to understand and tame the voices he hears and the reader struggles to decide whether these voices are real or imagined. This question is never answered in a satisfactory way and the reader swings between accepting them and discounting them. This uncertainty unsettles us as we try to understand what kind of narrative we are reading—is it a sentimental tale of family destruction and reconstitution, a chronicle of juvenile mental illness, or a meditation on the inescapable burden of the material world? Ozeki refuses to provide the reader with any solid ground on which to judge this question. The meandering plot and the novel’s experimental structure prevent us from settling into understanding; just as we begin to think we are beginning to understand what is happening, the perspective changes again, casting all our certainty into doubt.
In particular, Ozeki’s presentation and manipulation of narrative voice contributes to a mounting sense of disorientation. The story begins with the narrative voice of The Book itself, with the first words of the novel serving as a kind of manifesto of the bravura act of writing. Ozeki says:
A book must start somewhere. One brave letter must volunteer to go first, laying itself on the line in an act of faith, from which a word takes heart and follows, drawing a sentence into its wake. From there, a paragraph amasses, and soon a page, and the book is on its way, finding a voice, calling itself into being.
A book must start somewhere, and this one starts here.
In this short passage, Ozeki introduces the main theme of the novel—the idea that material things have voices, personalities, and agency in some sense, that they can be brave and inspiring, that they can take the lead in their own becoming and being, and that their voices should be heeded. While this might seem like a noble theme, the way it plays out in Ozeki’s novel is more difficult to assess. Narrative voices are untrustworthy. All of the characters are unsympathetic or confusing. The plot meanders forwards and backwards in time, leaving the reader wondering how, or whether, all the narrative threads will ever come together to make meaning.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the novel is the slipperiness of each of the narrative voices. One is tempted to trust The Book as the ultimate omniscient narrator. After all, who would know the underlying meaning of a narrative if not The Book? However, the tone of the narration makes it difficult to maintain this trust. While it may seem like an omniscient narrator, aware of its function as a voice that ties together confusing narrative threads and provides a respite from the confusion of the world of the novel, The Book’s arch tone and often chiding, unsympathetic manner make it difficult to determine whether it is reliable or a benevolent guide for the reader.
Other characters’ voices are also frustrating or confusing. Benny’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melanie, is so unable to connect with him that their interactions are painful to participate in as a reader. Annabelle, too, is mired in her own dysfunction, eliciting both pity and frustration. Kenji, whose living presence only lasts until the ninth paragraph, dies stupidly and unnecessarily, evoking frustration and even ridicule in the reader who wants to echo one of his friends’ jokes at the funeral: Seriously, dude, a chicken truck? Other characters, such as Benny’s love interest, The Aleph, a fellow psychiatric patient, and Slavoj, a homeless poet-philosopher who is part of her circle are ciphers.
However important they are to Benny, each of the supporting characters’ flaws further alienate us from the narrative. We cannot trust the Book—it is not a disinterested guide. We cannot trust Dr. Melanie—her fundamental misunderstanding of Benny’s experience and lack of insight make her as inaccessible to us as she is to Benny. And neither Benny nor we can trust Annabelle to take care of him or to provide us with an interpretive key. Kenji’s death makes him the ultimate inaccessible character. The Aleph, dealing with her own psychiatric problems, comes and goes from Benny’s life, but she also is unreliable for him and for us. Finally, Slavoj seems as if he might be able to offer a way to understand the voices for Benny (and the text, for us) when he says, “Of course I hear woices! I am a poet. . . . Everything speaks, young schoolboy! But it is only poets and prophets, saints and philosophers who hef ze ears to hear.” This, then, might be the key—perhaps Benny, and we, are meant to develop ears to hear the poetry underlying all things. However, Slavoj, too, cannot be depended upon; he is mercurial, prone to making speeches, and grandiose. He is just as difficult to trust as the other characters and the reader questions whether he actually offers a way to understand the novel. Therefore, we are predisposed to mistrust him when Slavoj makes his final appearance and offers what is perhaps Ozeki’s own perspective on the story in which we have participated. He says:
I believe in stories, and God knows this. Stories are real, my boy. They matter. If you lose your belief in your story, you vill lose yourself. . . . ‘Ze truth about stories is that is all we are.’ A famous Cherokee writer named Thomas King once said this. We are ze stories we tell ourselves, Benny-boy. We meck ourselves up. We meck each other up, too.
Despite this sentiment, which one senses that Ozeki means to be profound and touching, the shifting narrative voices and the cacophony of the self-serving and unreliable detritus surrounding Benny make the experience of reading Ozeki’s novel a challenge. While certain passages are beautiful and the novel’s ending does much to console the exasperated reader, ultimately the experience is difficult. While Ozeki tries to assert that the material world is important, that it is connected to the spiritual and emotional, and, finally, that it matters in a morally significant way, her continual manipulation of voice, in particular, make the novel feel more like a virtuoso performance skimming the surface of profundity than an attempt to truly grapple with the ontological implications of the material. Even at the novel’s end, Ozeki remains opaque. She relates Benny’s final dream: he stands at the top of a mountain of Annabelle’s hoarded garbage and hears the discordant symphony made by all the discarded objects which symbolize his mother’s “dreams and all her good intentions.” The girl of his dreams appears and he understands that her role is to keep him from falling while his is to keep her from floating away. There the novel ends with an unsettling abruptness. Even to the last, Ozeki’s meaning is as slippery as the mountain of trash Benny is standing upon. While this ambiguity allows a number of interpretations, we long for a narrative perspective which is more trustworthy than the others. Ozeki’s refusal to provide such an interpretive key may be the point of the novel, but it does make the experience of reading it seem like a lot of trouble without an entirely satisfying return.
Colleen Zarzecki has worked as a technical writer, an IT professional, a stay-at-home mother, and a communications professional for more than thirty years. Currently, she teaches at a Catholic school and lives with her husband and two teenaged daughters in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Posted on February 8, 2023.