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I just could not get into it – The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

There is such a thing as an intended audience: when a writer produces a book outline for a publisher, it has to include who the prospective readers are, and that is usually tied in with which genre, if any, the book is in. The parameters of established genres often shape our expectations of a book or piece of music. Unfortunately, when I bought Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, I did not first check the genres into which it is categorized: Coming-of-Age Fiction, Literary Fiction and Fantasy. The Coming-of-Age label should have warned me that the subject would probably not be to my taste. Second, I barely read the summary on the dust jacket, and I should’ve and stopped at the words “thirteen-year-old Benny”.

The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki (Coming-of-Age Fiction, Literary Fiction, Fantasy; Viking; Sept. 21, 2021; 560 pages)

I do not often read or review romances, family stories, or novels where the protagonists aren’t grownups. I simply cannot get into the head of a character if they are a child. The whole thing escapes me, and worse, bores me.

This novel is indeed about a teenage boy, “Benny”, who gets involved with fantastical characters as a result of emotional trauma after the death of his father, resulting in a diagnosis of a complicated psychological condition. His mother also has problems, the most serious of which is the strange behaviour of her son.

Ozeki is writer and also a Zen Buddhist priest, and this probably led to her inclusion of numerous themes, sub-themes, allusions, and references in the novel that relate to spirituality and metaphysics. A prominent theme is that of Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story on the theme of infinity and space, The Aleph (1945). One of the teenage characters in the story is called “Aleph”. Why The Aleph? Borges’ original story, El Aleph, is a symbolic tale for adults that has been analyzed to death. Why would a teenage girl even know of it?

“Benny frowned. ‘Sorry. I thought you were this girl I met in the hospital.’
‘Yup. That’s me.’
‘So, what’s your name?’
‘Depends. Here, I’m called The Aleph.’
‘The Elf?’
‘No. The Aleph. A-l-e-p-h. Like the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet. This.’ She shifted the disgruntled ferret over to one side, unzipped her hoodie and shrugged off one sleeve to reveal her naked shoulder, onto which was tattooed the letter A, lying on its side. The horizontal crossbar extended beyond the diagonal lines, and the whole thing was sort of enclosed in a circle:

‘It’s my artist name. The B-man gave it to me. It’s from a Borges short story.’
‘Cool,’ Benny said again, wondering. Who was the B-man? And what was a Borges?”

The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki, pp. 185, 186

This is fairly typical of the rest of the novel, and as you can see it is packed with curious references. So: a tattooed teenage girl knows about the Phoenician alphabet, and Borges’ mystifying story, and she has a ferret which, a few pages earlier, is described as “a nonbinary, gender-fluid ferret” called “TAZ”, for “Temporary Autonomous Zone”. And apparently long-deceased Mr. Borges is now “the B-man’, her friend. Right. If this kind of thing appeals to you then by golly, you will love this novel.

Not me though. I simply bought The Book of form and Emptiness because I had read and appreciated her novels My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), however, to be honest, I could not tell you now what they are about or why I still have them in my bookcase. Since Ozeki has only written four novels in 24 years, I thought it was quite a literary occasion.

The Book of Form and Emptiness is a whopping 560 pages long. I failed to finish it, could not get into it after the first three pages, and only read part of the rest. It is not the author’s fault. The novel has won reams of awards and praise, everyone says it is amazing and brilliant and a totally new concept. For all I know they could be right. But I don’t think I am part of the intended readership and, like Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 of 2017, it will unfortunately languish on my bookshelf and gather dust.

There are many reasons why people don’t finish reading novels. In this instance, I have three: I don’t have the patience or the time, I got bored, and I could not identify with the protagonists. My bad. Don’t blame the author.

I will remind myself to have realistic expectations the next time I buy the latest books of writers with whose work I am familiar with.

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