... [an] ambitious and ingenious novel that presents a stinging exploration of grief, a reflection on our relationship to objects, a potent testament to the importance of reading, writing, and books ... The most endearing aspect of Ozeki’s novel is its unabashed celebration of words, writing, and reading. A library is one of the novel’s most enchanted settings, at once a refuge from the cacophony of objects that overwhelms Benny at home and in school and a magical portal to a world of self-discovery and unexpected connections ... The Book of Form and Emptiness is charming and warm, dynamic and filled with love, but over-full and a bit undisciplined. It meanders and digresses ... But its heart, its ardent, beating heart, is huge. Ozeki’s playfulness and zaniness, her compassion and boundless curiosity, prevent the novel from ever feeling stiff or pretentious. Clever without being arch, metafictional without being arcane, dark without being nihilistic, The Book of Form and Emptiness is an exuberant delight.
A vivid story of fraught adolescence, big ideas and humanity’s tenuous hold on a suffering planet ... This is a novel of big ideas. Zen Buddhist precepts guide the meditations on our relationships with objects, and at times the narrative threatens to buckle under the weight of its conceptual burdens. Some characters feel flat, marshaled forth to advance a theory rather than embody a real person ... Ozeki, an imaginative writer with a subversive sense of humor, has an acute grasp of young people’s contemporary dilemmas ... The Book of Form and Emptiness overflows with love and a lot of sadness ... Ozeki doesn’t offer anything as complete as salvation but something more real: a profound understanding of the human condition and a gift for turning it into literature.
Adept at magical realist fiction, Ozeki ensouls the world. Everything in her universe, down to a windowpane and a widget, has a psyche and a certain amount of agency and can communicate, if only with the few human beings granted the power to understand them ... stands out among the story’s other sentient entities in that it has extraordinary powers of self-reflection and self-replication. This is a Book, as well as a book. It serves as both narrator and instructor. It tells the story; it tries to teach the hero to tell his own story; and it struggles to get him and us to understand the true meaning of Books: that they are the maps of Life ... There’s powerful magic here. I’d call it Zen if I knew what I was talking about. In any case, Ozeki does not grab at the wind. She is unusually patient with her characters, even the rebarbative ones, and she is able to record the subtle peculiarities of other classes of being that more overeager writers would probably miss. By juxtaposing a Benny trying to push the clamor of things out of his head and an Annabelle who binge-eats them, as it were, Ozeki gives us a metaphor for our own very American consumption disorder, our love-hate relationship with the stuff we overproduce and can’t let go of ... the novel is overstuffed ... The more interesting aggravation, however, is the novel’s framing device — that is to say, the Book as both narrator and character. The conceit is grating. The Book has a bad habit of Book-splaining ... offers an unflinching and in many respects magnificent tour of that dark side. If the Book feels the need to natter on about courage and whatnot, I guess I’ll just make like Benny and try to ignore it.
... while Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest, incorporates principles of Zen Buddhism into both The Book and the fabric of the story, it doesn’t come off as preachy—the signpost of a skillful omniscient narrator, and the brilliance of making The Book itself such a well-developed character ... Benny’s responses to what The Book shares about his life and his parents can be hilarious; other times, it’s pointed ... tension between The Book and Benny’s feelings about how his story—and self—is portrayed makes Benny a rich three-dimensional character, one who’s impossible not to root for and love. His journey takes on an epic feel, in part because the length of the novel allows for such scope, but also because the story develops into a riveting plot. The Book of Form and Emptiness indeed has everything one wants from a novel—sympathetic and interesting characters, a propulsive story that is heartbreaking but also playful and affirming, artful structure and skillful point of view—all while wrestling with life’s big questions.
Ozeki’s brilliance is to never let Annabelle’s pile overwhelm the reader, offering glimpses of it only through Annabelle’s and Benny’s eyes, who in their grief often have trouble registering the tangible reality around them. ... Ozeki’s prose is magnetic as she draws readers along, teasing out an ethereal and haunting quality through an additional narrator: that of a sentient Book, who speaks with Benny and helps to tell his story. The Book’s observations are beyond a human’s scope, with a universal objectivity blooming from a communication matrix among all books, like a mycelial network ... Benny and Annabelle are characters you’ll never stop rooting for. They’re worthy of readers’ love as Ozeki meditates on the nature of objects, compassion and everyday beauty. After reading, you’ll be eager for this book to find its way into other readers’ hands.
... a searching novel, one that combines a coming-of-age tale with an ode to the printed page ... Occasionally, Ozeki is overly clever. Books are among the objects that have humanlike consciousness, she writes. They identify as nonbinary ... More often, though, she's incisive on matters like consumerism and climate change. Meanwhile, her ruminations on life's greatest mysteries provide an elegant foundation for an intriguing story.
Readers of Ozeki’s work...will recognize her Zen-inspired apprehension of the world and playful storytelling style ... In giving the Book a point of view, Ozeki creates a loquacious, animated voice with ideas about other books, the past, the need for human stories and the mutual needs of humans and books ... With this well-developed voice, Ozeki plays humorously with ideas about what a novel is — about the development of a story, how it gets told, who tells it, who hears it and how books affect people ... Ozeki...takes up big ideas about this moment on our planet, but also offers close descriptions of memorable images that make the prose absorbing ...These images reverberate long after the reading, speaking to Ozeki’s broad and benign vision of connected beings.
... an often moving story about two people struggling over the unexpected loss of a third. It’s also an ostentatious self-commentary about how we tell and receive stories through books ... All of this would make for a convoluted story made nevertheless engaging by the unapologetic earnestness of Ozeki’s treatment of her characters’ struggles. But Ozeki isn’t interested in just telling a story. The novel’s conventional segments are interleaved with monologues by Benny and by the book itself, in the voices — respectively — of a snarky and questioning teen with low self-esteem and an empathetic, encouraging therapist with immense self-esteem ... The author sets high standards for this conceptual daring, with repeated quoting and riffing on Walter Benjamin’s writing about books and libraries, and on Borges’s ideated puzzle-making with identity and story. But such signalling and citation only expose the cloying banality of Ozeki’s own claims and insights, which include adolescent bibliophile profundities ... Ozeki has considerable storytelling energies; these were evident and rightly acclaimed in her prior work, and likewise feature in the best parts of The Book of Form & Emptiness. It’s too bad that, in this case, her affecting story is overwhelmed by the novel’s affectedly empty observations about itself.
If A Tale for a Time Being is a novel concerned with a continuum of moments folding around one another, A Book of Form and Emptiness is its energetic, matter-focused parallel ... Ozeki’s books are compassionate toward individuals relegated to the periphery of society, perhaps low-income persons or differently-abled bodies, surviving in a world seemingly not made for them. The cacophony of object-voices also invites a meditation on American consumerism, a preoccupation that propels tragedies onto those unable to meet its impossible standards ... Despite an unabashed inclusion of modern events and problems, Ozeki presents facts without erring into didacticism...Such moments are fleeting on the page, and it’s up to the reader to give weight to what is placed before them ... not a sedentary read. Use of second-person 'we' when Book speaks summons the novel’s reader inside of an ongoing narrative, allowing them to become both a character and the writer of the story they’re simultaneously absorbing and anticipating as they turn the page ... nurtures stories of human connection—not excluding those inherited through things both collected and discarded—as well as the transcendent magic that so many words can conjure. If one accepts that a novel and its counterparts, limited by form, cannot act as a true looking glass for its reader, then the value of a book is instead measured by a limited number of words that seek to convey and impact our shared realities. In the liminal space of form and emptiness, it is stories, especially those bound safely inside books, that tether us to life. Ozeki’s novels tend to speak for themselves.
Benny’s adventures in the community they have created out of books remind us vividly of Borges but also of Russell Hoban, Tim Powers or early Thomas Pynchon ... The stylistic landscape is economical and unfussed – minimalist but not performatively so. If it’s sometimes hard to tell who the book is addressing – perhaps an intersectional demographic of children’s librarians and creative writing students – it’s even harder not to like Ozeki’s calm, dry, methodical good humour and wit, her love affairs with linguistics and jazz and the absurd, her cautious optimism, her gentle parodies ... What she is best at conveying, though, is the tidal flood of human life and the absurd, unwieldy scurf of manufactured objects that has accompanied it through the Anthropocene. You hang on to your things in case you’re swept away by the water and become like a thing yourself. What can be relinquished and what can’t? ... At base, this is a simple story about the links between poverty, mental health and loss. It’s often heartbreaking, but we would be wrong to interpret Annabelle and Benny’s struggles as a descent. Ozeki is carefully celebrating difference, not patronising dysfunction. Out of their fractured relations, she makes something so satisfying that it gave me the sense of being addressed not by an author but by a world, one that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in tenuous parallel to ours: a world built out of ideas that spill into the text like a continuous real-time event. The voice of a commentary on the present – or of the commentary of the present upon itself.
... the characters here are believable and human; Annabelle in particular is lovely, lonely, and strikingly real. Her flaws are written large, but, like literature’s best flaws, her hoarding is a perversion of her greatest strength ... Despite its strengths, The Book of Form and Emptiness is less ambitious than its predecessor ... the metatextual elements...feel forced and—frankly—cliché ... The voice of the Book Benny hears is charming and sometimes helpful. It is not particularly original. When the Book speaks, its words are often heavy-handed and self-righteous ... The Book is likewise responsible for many of the novel’s clunkier moments. Nevertheless, The Book of Form and Emptiness has charms of its own ... The novel is at its best when it is simply the story of Benny and Annabelle, two broken people who must learn to love themselves, flaws and all.
The author has so much she wants to say that her narrative is sometimes as cluttered as the cramped half-house in which Benny’s mother, Annabelle, obsessively piles up unnecessary purchases. Fortunately, one of Ozeki’s gifts as a novelist is the ability to enfold provocative intellectual material within a human story grounded in sharply observed social detail. Her emotional engagement with her characters and her themes makes The Book of Form and Emptiness as compelling as it is occasionally unwieldy ... The Zen teachings seamlessly integrated into the story line of Ozeki’s previous novel, A Tale for the Time Being, here seem a slightly redundant addition to the chorus of voices urging us to see the desolation manifest in our mania for possessions and the terrible consequences of viewing the Earth’s bounty as raw material to be exploited for human gain ... It’s unclear how this call to revere all objects relates to the Book’s equally fervent denunciation of the way humans have overloaded the planet with trash. With so many philosophical balls in the air, Ozeki’s ideas are sometimes as inchoate as the metaphor of form and emptiness she periodically invokes but never entirely elucidates. Like all artists, her flaws are intertwined with her strengths; she embraces complexity and contradiction ... The Book itself has a marvelous voice: adult, ironic, affirming at every turn the importance of books as a repository of humanity’s deepest wisdom and highest aspirations ... The human drama Ozeki crafts comes to a satisfying conclusion; Benny and Annabelle work and grow to achieve their measured happy endings. The larger issues their stories raise remain unresolved, because there are no easy resolutions in life — or in the challenging kind of art practiced in The Book of Form and Emptiness.
Ozeki draws on her Zen Buddhist attentiveness as she writes with bountiful insight, exuberant imagination, and levitating grace about psychic diversity, our complicated attitude toward our possessions, street protests, climate change, and such wonders as crows, the moon, and snow globes. Most inventively, Ozeki celebrates the profound relationship between reader and writer. This enthralling, poignant, funny, and mysterious saga, thrumming with grief and tenderness, beauty and compassion, offers much wisdom.
Ruth Ozeki’s novels continue to evolve to include ever-greater explorations into themes of connection across time and space. While that might sound intimidating, she practically embraces the reader in her accessible prose as if inviting a friend on an exciting new adventure ... Longtime fans of Ozeki will appreciate that in her arching career, she’s never lost sight of the necessity of caring for the earth, she has only broadened her literary subject matter to encompass the impact of materialism. Troubling out the meaning of these materials, these objects, these forms that we collect or purge or recycle is one of the many themes Ozeki takes up in this work ... The Book of Form and Emptiness is a book-lover’s book, one for the collection, one to hold in your hands and feel the spark of joy.
The world Ruth Ozeki creates in The Book of Form & Emptiness resembles one of the snow globes that pop up throughout the novel: a whirling chaos of objects and people ... The author has fun with both wokery and its opposite ... Different readers will read her book differently, some identifying with disaffected, teen-speaking Benny, others relishing the postmodernist fun. Or you can simply spin through the pages and enjoy the story ... About halfway through, the book falters under the weight of its ideas before arriving at a sweet but satisfying conclusion. Ozeki is a skilled storyteller and the journey she takes us on is deadpan hilarious, heart-touching and ultimately hopeful.
The narrative...considers issues from consumerism and environmental disaster, to mental health and our relationship with Made and Unmade objects. Arcing over all is Benny’s big question: How do we know what is real? Rich to overflowing and utterly engaging, Ozeki’s work wants us to listen to the world.
The Book and Form and Emptiness itself talk[s] to us. In another book that metatextual overlay might feel too clever or precious, but this novel’s earnest, self-deprecating voice merges effortlessly into Ozeki’s theme of the overlooked agency of objects ... Though Ozeki handled similar topics with perhaps more agility in her debut novel, My Year of Meats, this novel’s meditative pacing perfectly suits its open-hearted contemplation. The book’s self-awareness allows it to comically hedge and tiptoe, to digress into diatribes...only to catch itself and sheepishly apologize ... It is both profound and fun, a loving indictment of our consumer culture.
A captivating tale ... I can say that The Book of Form and Emptiness is very real. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story of emotional growth filled with characters as real as anyone you would meet on the street.
Ruth Ozeki’s new novel starts, with sentences that call, whimsically and pretentiously, for your attention. There are a great many such sentences in this fat, over-stuffed novel, and it leads this reviewer at least to sigh for the days when strong-minded editors were more important in publishing houses than the marketing department. The blue pencil would have come out, underlining a sentence or indeed paragraph and scribbling 'self-indulgent' in the margin. There aren’t many of Ozeki’s pages that would have escaped the blue pencil ... It’s a pity. There are many good things in the novel. There could scarcely fail to be because Ozeki often writes well and has good and interesting theme here ... There is a general and tedious fuzziness to much of the novel. Silliness too. If, however, you think a spoon can speak of its sorrows, this may be your sort of novel.
Zen Buddhist priest Ozeki’s illuminating postmodern latest explores themes of mourning, madness, and the powers of the imagination ... Sometimes this reads like a simple coming-of-age tale, but Ozeki playfully and successfully breaks the fourth wall...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.
Ozeki counterpoints faultless contemporary teenspeak with an adult third-person voice ... Ozeki’s insertion of Zen teachings into the narrative is slightly contrived, but she underscores the urgency of her spiritual message by ratcheting up the physical-world tension for her characters ... Overstuffed, but serious readers will appreciate Ozeki’s passionate engagement with important ideas.