cover image The Book of Form and Emptiness

The Book of Form and Emptiness

Ruth Ozeki. Viking, $30 (560p) ISBN 978-0-399-56364-5

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. (Sept.)