An Urgent New Book for the Time Being

November 17, 2021   •   By David Palumbo-Liu

The Book of Form and Emptiness

Ruth Ozeki

RUTH OZEKI’S NEW NOVEL, The Book of Form and Emptiness, has been widely praised in the pages of The Guardian (twice), The Washington Post, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The consensus is that (a) it’s a marvelous book, (b) it’s too long, and (c) it takes too much time to deliver a very similar message as Ozeki’s last novel, A Tale for the Time Being, a 2013 Booker finalist. Each of the abovementioned reviews does a good job describing the plot lines and characters — here, I am going to do something different. I will make the case that The Book of Form and Emptiness is a radical novel. The 548 pages of The Book are warranted because of a message that is much bigger and more comprehensive in its critique than any of Ozeki’s previous works.

First, let’s consider some common themes and narrative techniques that are part of Ozeki’s novels. Each displays wisdom, humor, and irony, even in the midst of speaking about extremely serious topics. Each of her narrators is insistently self-deprecatory. Each fights a good fight against seemingly insurmountable forces, but victories (when they happen) are the product of serendipitous acts performed by characters acting independently — and chance. Ozeki’s topics include growth hormones forced on both humans and animals, genetically altered food, deceptive advertising, nuclear disaster, information systems run amok. Both the human body and the human mind are regularly permeated by bad stuff, misinformation, propaganda, and illusions of various natures, but so too is our natural world.

As indicated by its title, A Tale for the Time Being engages issues of contemporary narrative fiction and traditional storytelling, and locates both in the flux of human existence. The problem that The Book of Form and Emptiness discloses, with a title that neatly parallels that of its predecessor, is that time is running out. While both texts seriously expound upon Zen principles — Ozeki is an ordained Zen priest — something absolutely concrete and historical always forms part of the broad dialectic she spins. Consider the fact that the manuscript for A Tale for the Time Being was nearly complete when the nuclear disaster at Fukushima hit in 2011. Ozeki radically rethought the project, jettisoning a huge amount of material so that she could incorporate a second, parallel story line, one which emanated from that historical event and linked it to her North American narrative. It became a tale of two continents, and more.

Similar to the ways her first novel, My Year of Meats (1998), showed how the American and Japanese beef industries were complicit in attempting to enhance the consumption of hormone-laced beef on both continents, A Tale for the Time Being showed how nuclear and information technology were destroying both human relations and the environment.

The Book of Form and Emptiness does even more, by squarely addressing the basics: How is it that human beings are so easily manipulated? And, as importantly, how is it that human beings are so eager and ready to manipulate other human beings, and to lay waste to the planet? What kinds of delusions of grandeur do we cling to — why do we make such a big deal of our transitory existences? And, of course, what do books have to do with both reinforcing pernicious illusions and breaking them?

The novel begins tragically, with the death of a young boy’s much-beloved father. The boy, Benny, is left alone with his mother, Annabelle. Benny’s father has not left them in good financial shape — his work was as a jazz musician rooted in the musical gig economy. Annabelle’s job is decidedly anachronistic and precarious, and we witness both its and her decline. As Benny tries to cope with this new existence, he begins to hear voices emanating from objects. Scissors, tables, spoons, backpacks, you name it. The entire phenomenal universe seems to speak (or yell, or laugh) at him. As we follow his world and his mind crumbling, we see him battered by inhumane systems, yet buoyed up by his mother’s love, and the companionship of a ragtag group of misfits, who gather in a deserted room of the public library.

Benny begins to hear a rather distinct voice, one with which he begins a minimalist kind of dialogue. The voice belongs to the Book. From that point on, Ozeki creates a beautiful, funny, sad, haunting, and extremely moving narrative whose length, in my view, is more than warranted. Let me explain.

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In her praiseful New York Times review of the novel, Judith Shulevitz blithely says, “There’s powerful magic here. I’d call it Zen if I knew what I was talking about.” Here’s the problem: Shulevitz has already noted that Ozeki is a Zen priest. She has the intuition that here is something “Zen,” but her false modesty leads her to both make and unmake a statement, instead of pausing to learn up a little bit on what Zen says. This disappointing unwillingness to examine Zen seriously is, I think, deeply tied to the reviewer’s desire not to relinquish her command of the review. And this investment in ego is precisely what Zen teaches us to put in check.

The basic tenet of Zen is that the source of all suffering is the belief that things, including abstractions like human relationships, are solid and unchangeable, and that humans can secure a kind of certainty in the midst of radical flux. This investment in certainty, solidity, and predictability sits side by side with our overwhelming sense of self and unwarranted belief in our individual power.

A discussion of “Form and Emptiness” is central to the Heart Sutra, which states: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty.” [1] In his gloss of this, the Dalai Lama writes,

Through the twelve links of dependent origination, Buddha teaches that all things and all events, including all elements of one’s individual experience, come into being merely as a result of the aggregation of causes and conditions. Understanding this, in turn, can lead us to see that all things are by nature interdependent, originating entirely as a result of other things and other factors.

This interdependency of course extends to people — and this notion of interdependence runs exactly counter to the West’s prime value of “independence.”

The message of Zen, and of The Book of Form and Emptiness, is that every “form” contains within itself its own negation, and every “emptiness” does as well. Critically, in personal terms this dialectic should not lead us to any sort of hedonistic nihilism, but to modesty, kindness, and empathy. We need to recognize that we are all interdependent. From this understanding of our commonality, we can become co-creators (not just co-protagonists) of not just good, but beautiful things that make our tenuous coexistence worthwhile. Ozeki’s commitment to having all her novels be co-productions created by multiple figures reaches its most dazzling manifestation in a book and a protagonist, mutually engendered.

There is so much suffering in The Book of Form and Emptiness, as is proper. Everyone suffers, and in profound ways. A great deal of the suffering is the product of very flawed, if not evil, systems and institutions that are decidedly human-made: the courts, the police, the economic system, labor, the health system, the mental health system, and more. Characters suffer from poor mental and physical health, unemployment, poor public education, and, ultimately, by the sheer physical and mental exhaustion of living at the mercy of all this. And the heart of the suffering is, again, the constant preaching for “independence,” and the equally constant blindness to our mutual interdependency.

The problem is, not unlike the reviewer for The New York Times, we have come to believe that we are doing the best we can, on our own. If there was ever a novel that made the case for abolition, it is this one. Over and over in the novel we find characters who seem mere cogs in a horrible machine reaching into themselves to try to do the right thing, only to be frustrated by the immensity of interlocking bad systems — why are people who suffer from poor mental health siphoned into nothing more than holding patterns? Why and how are people unable to find meaningful work? Why is the education system anchored in test results and “presence”? The only way good things happen is when people set aside their selves and act together. But with biting realism, Ozeki shows us how and why this is so hard.

Crucially, we get a firm nod at the 2016 election, but the name “Trump” is never uttered — thankfully so. Because what Ozeki is fundamentally interested in is identifying basic human narcissism, a completely off-scale love affair with the self that haunts us all, and that led to Trump’s success, and maybe his return in 2024. We had better get our shit together.

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The attachment to things is a major concern of this novel. I am reminded of that bemused question, “Why should I buy things I cannot afford to impress people whose judgment I don’t respect?” Zen tells us that it’s because we think that by building up our castles of things, we are securing an insecurable thing — the self. That we are obsessed with acquiring things — hoarding them, making sure others do not get our things, making sure they do not get as many things as we do, lest the value of our things (and ourselves) decreases — is both a major focal point of this novel, but again, also ancillary to the illusion of self and of permanence. Yet, as the novel beautifully says, everything is “already broken.” This, of course, includes human relationships. This fact also means we have the blessed opportunity to learn to make things better, rather than simply rebuild the same old bad stuff. We can make better schools, health-care systems, environments, human relations, and, yes, human relationships. We can be better to and with each other, and the planet.

There has never been a more timely novel — there, I said it. Ozeki sees the real dangers of fascism, bureaucratic and political paralysis, and environmental disaster not on the horizon, but before our very eyes. Only by acting together, rather than in self-centered isolation, can we save ourselves, and the planet. And that means that we must stop taking our selves so fatally seriously, because there is more serious work to do — together, and with modesty, empathy, and love. Like the dialogues between Benny and the Book, which at once frame the entire narrative and the myriad conversations among all the other characters, we can together create a symphony where before we heard only static and noise — all this involves listening, rather than simply hearing.

Books can help us to this realization, but only if we develop the capacity and desire to listen capaciously (hence the first line uttered by a character: “Shhh … Listen!”), to things both human-made and natural, to nonhuman animals — and to each other.

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But that is not the end. To conclude like that, with a decisive downbeat or chord resolution on “Book,” would be to lapse back into the idea of a final form. Recall, the Book depends on Benny, form on emptiness, existence with nonexistence. I believe Ruth Ozeki is as concerned with what we can bring to a book as what it can give us. One message of this marvelously catalytic narrative event is that it’s all about relations, not individual ontology.

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David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University.

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[1] Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra. Translated and edited by Geshe Thupten Jinpa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005, 60.