A brilliantly inventive novel about loss, growing up, and our relationship with things
One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house—a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn't understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.
At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, Benny discovers a strange new world. He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.
And he meets his very own Book—a talking thing—who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.
With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot, and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz, to climate change, to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki—bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane and heartbreaking.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's
passion borders on the chaos of memories.
-Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library"
So, start with the voices, then.
When did he first hear them? When he was still little? Benny was always a small boy and slow to develop, as though his cells were reluctant to multiply and take up space in the world. It seems he pretty much stopped growing when he turned twelve, the same year his father died and his mother started putting on weight. The change was subtle, but Benny seemed to shrink as Annabelle grew, as if she were metabolizing her small son's grief along with her own.
Yes. That seems right.
So, perhaps the voices started around then, too, shortly after Kenny died? It was a car accident that killed him-no, it was a truck. Kenny Oh was a jazz clarinetist, but his real name was Kenji, so we'll call him that. He played swing mostly, big band stuff, at weddings and bar mitzvahs and in campy downtown hipster clubs, where the dudes all wore beards and porkpie hats and checkered shirts and mothy tweed jackets from the Salvation Army. He'd been playing a gig, and afterward he went out drinking or drugging or whatever he did with his musician friends-just a little toot, but enough so that on his way home, when he stumbled and fell in the alley, he didn't see the necessity of getting up right away. He wasn't far from home, only a few yards from the rickety gate that led to the back of his house. If he'd managed to crawl a bit further, he would have been okay, but instead he just lay there on his back, in a dim pool of light cast by the streetlamp above the Gospel Mission Thrift Shop dumpster. The long chill of winter had begun to lift, and a spring mist hung in the alleyway. He lay there, gazing up at the light and the tiny particles of moisture that swarmed brightly in the air. He was drunk. Or high. Or both. The light was beautiful. Earlier in the evening, he'd had a fight with his wife. Maybe he was feeling sorry. Maybe in his mind he was vowing to be better. Who knows what he was doing? Maybe he fell asleep. Let's hope so. In any case, that's where he was still lying an hour or so later, when the delivery truck came rattling down the alleyway.
It wasn't the truck driver's fault. The alley was filled with ruts and potholes. It was littered with half-emptied garbage bags, food waste, sodden clumps of clothes and broken appliances, which the dumpster divers had left behind. In the flat, gray light of the drizzling dawn, the truck driver couldn't distinguish between the debris and the musician's slim body, which by then was covered in crows. The crows were Kenji's friends. They were just trying to help by keeping him warm and dry, but everyone knows that crows love garbage. Is it any wonder that the driver mistook Kenji for a garbage bag? The driver hated crows. Crows were bad luck, and so he aimed his truck right at them. The truck was carrying crates of live chickens to the Chinese slaughterhouse at the end the alleyway. He stepped on the gas and felt the body bump beneath the wheels as the crows flew up in front of his windshield, obscuring his view and causing him to lose control and careen into the loading dock of the Eternal Happiness Printing Company Ltd. The truck tipped, and the crates of chickens went flying.
The noise of squawking birds woke Benny, whose bedroom window overlooked the dumpster. He lay there, listening, and then the back door slammed. A high, thin cry rose from the alley, uncoiling like a rope, like a living tentacle, snaking up into his window and hooking him, drawing him from bed. He went to the window, parted the curtains, and peered down into the street. The sky was just growing light. He could see the truck on its side, wheels spinning, and the air was filled with flapping wings and flying feathers, although, being cage-raised, these chickens couldn't really fly. They didn't really even look like birds. They were just these white Tribble-like things, scrabbling away into the shadows. The thin cry tightened like a wire, drawing Benny's eyes to a spectral figure, enveloped in a cloud of diaphanous white, the source of the sound, the source of his world: his mother, Annabelle.
She stood there in her nightgown, alone in the pool of light cast by the streetlamp. All around her there was motion, feathers drifting like snow, but she stood perfectly still, like a frozen princess, Benny thought. She was looking down at something on the ground, and in a flash, he knew that something was his father. From where he watched, high up in his window, he couldn't see his father's face, but he recognized his legs, which were bent and kicking, just like they did when Kenji was dancing, only now he was lying on his side.
His mother took a step forward. "Nooo!" she cried, and fell to her knees. Her thick golden hair spilled down her shoulders, catching the light from the streetlamp and curtaining her husband's head. She leaned over, crooning as she tried to gather him up. "No, Kenji, no, no, please, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. . . ."
Did he hear her? If he had opened his eyes just then, he would have seen his wife's lovely face hanging over him like a pale moon. Maybe he did. He would have seen the crows, perched on the rooftops and the swaying powerlines, watching. And maybe, looking over his wife's shoulder and beyond, he would have seen his son watching, too, from his distant window. Let's say he did see, because his dancing legs slowed then, stopped kicking and grew still. If, in that moment, Annabelle was Kenji's moon, then Benny was his distant star, and seeing him there, twinkling brightly in the pale dawn sky, he made an effort to move his arm, to raise his hand, to wiggle his fingers.
Like he was waving to me, Benny thought later. Like he was waving goodbye.
Kenji died on the way to the hospital, and the funeral was held the following week. It was up to Annabelle to make the arrangements, but she wasnÕt much for planning these kinds of things. Kenji was the outgoing one, and as a couple theyÕd never entertained or had people over. She had few, if any, friends.
The funeral director asked her many questions about her loved one's family and religious faith, which she had trouble answering. Kenji didn't have any family that she knew of. He was born in Hiroshima, but his parents had died when he was young. His sister, who was still an infant at the time, had been sent to live with his aunt and uncle, while Kenji had been raised by their grandparents in Kyoto. He rarely talked about his childhood, except to say that his grandparents were very traditional and strict and he didn't get along with them, but of course they were dead now, too. Presumably his sister was still alive, but he'd lost touch with her. Early in their marriage, when Annabelle asked, he just smiled and stroked her cheek and said that she was all the family he needed.
As for faith, she knew his grandparents had been Buddhist, and once he told her about a time in college when he'd lived in a Zen monastery. She remembered how he'd laughed. So funny, right? Me, a monk! And she laughed, too, because he didn't seem at all monkish. He said he didn't need religion because he had jazz. The only religious thing he owned were some prayer beads, which he sometimes wore around his wrist. They were pretty, but she'd never seen him use them for praying. Given his Buddhist roots, it seemed wrong to have a Christian minister preside at his funeral, and so in answer to the director's questions, Annabelle said no, there was no family, no faith, and there would be no service. The director seemed disappointed.
"And on your side?" he asked solicitously, and when she hesitated, he added, "At times like these, it's good to have family-"
Memory flickered, ghostlike. She thought of her mother's shrunken body in the hospital bed. Her stepfather's dark shadow, looming in her doorway. She shook her head. "No," she said, firmly, cutting him off. "I said no family."
Couldn't he see? That she and Kenji were alone in the world, and this was what united them until Benny came along.
The funeral director glanced at his watch and moved on. He wondered about her thoughts regarding a viewing. Again, she hesitated, and so he explained. Viewing a loved one's carefully restored remains could reduce the trauma that witnessing a tragic accident often caused. It would ease their painful memories and help those left behind accept the reality of the physical death. The viewing room was intimate and tastefully appointed. The funeral home would be happy to provide liquid refreshments for their guests, a wide selection of teas, coffee with an assortment of delicious flavored creamers, as well as some cookies, perhaps?
Creamers? she thought, trying not to smile. Seriously? She wanted to remember this to tell Kenji later-it was just the kind of absurd thing that would make him laugh-but the director was waiting, so she readily agreed that yes, cookies would be nice. He made a note and then inquired as to her wishes regarding the final disposition of her loved one's remains. She sat on the edge of the overstuffed couch, heard herself answering yes to a cremation and no to a burial plot or a shelf in the crypt, when suddenly a thought arose: that she couldn't tell Kenji about the delicious flavored creamers because Kenji was dead. This thought was quickly followed by a succession of others: that the loved one whose remains they were discussing was Kenji, and that these remains were the remains of Kenji's body, the same beloved body that she knew so well and which, when she closed her eyes, she could picture so clearly, the sinewy muscles of his shoulders, the smooth tawny skin, the slope of his naked back.
She excused herself and asked if she might use the washroom. Certainly, the director said, and pointed her down the carpeted hallway. She closed the door behind her. Inside, scented fresheners infused the air from every wall socket. She dropped to her knees in front of the toilet bowl and vomited into the bright blue sanitized water.
Now KenjiÕs body lay in an open coffin in a parlor-like room at the funeral home. When Benny and Annabelle arrived for the viewing, the funeral director ushered them in and then backed away, discreetly, to give them a moment. Annabelle took a deep breath. Gripping her sonÕs elbow, she started toward the coffin. Benny had never walked like this before, with his mother holding on to his arm like he was the one in charge. He felt like a handrail or a banister. Stiffly, he supported her, guiding her forward, and then they were standing side by side at the coffinÕs edge.
Kenji was a small man, grown smaller now in death. He was dressed in the light blue seersucker blazer that Annabelle had chosen for him, the one he wore with black jeans when he played summer weddings, minus the porkpie hat. His clarinet lay across his chest. Annabelle exhaled, a long, soft, punctured sigh.
"He looks okay," she whispered. "Like he's just sleeping. And the coffin's nice, too." When Benny didn't answer, she tugged on his arm. "Don't you think?"
"I guess," Benny said. He studied the body, lying there in the fancy coffin. The eyes were closed, but the face didn't look alive enough to be asleep. Didn't look alive enough to be dead, even. Didn't look like something that had ever lived. Someone had used makeup to cover up the bruises, but his dad would never have worn makeup. Someone had brushed the long black hair and arranged it loosely on the satin pillow. Kenji only wore his hair loose and hanging down like that when he was relaxing at home. In public, he always tied it back in a thick, black ponytail. All these details proved to Benny that the thing in the coffin was not his father. "You going to burn his clarinet, too?"
They sat in stiff folding chairs off to the side and waited. People started to arrive. Their ancient Chinese landlady, Mrs. Wong. Two of Annabelle's coworkers. Kenji's bandmates and his friends from the club scene. The musicians stood inside the doorway, looking like they wanted to leave, but the funeral director urged them forward. Nervously, they wandered up to the coffin. Some of them lingered and stared. Others talked to the corpse, or cracked a joke-Seriously, dude, a chicken truck?-which Annabelle pretended not to hear, and then spotting the refreshment table, they headed quickly toward it, pausing to say a few awkward words to her and to give Benny a quick hug and a pat on the head. Annabelle was gracious. These were her husband's friends. Benny was twelve and hated the pats, but the hugs he hated worse. Some of the band members punched him on the shoulder. He didn't mind the punches.
Maybe it was the clarinet in the coffin that gave someone the idea, but as more people trickled in, more instruments started to appear, and then a couple of the band members set up in a corner of the room and began to play. Mellow jazz, nothing flashy. More guests arrived. When a bottle of whiskey showed up on the refreshment table, next to the creamers, the funeral director looked like he might object, but the trumpet player took him aside and talked to him. He receded, and the band played on.
Kenji knew people who knew how to party, and so when it was time to transport their friend's body to the crematorium, the musicians canceled the hearse and took matters into their own hands. Annabelle went along with them. The coffin was heavy, but Kenji added little to its weight, and so they were able to lift it, taking turns carrying it on their shoulders, New Orleans-style, through the narrow back alleys and the dark, rain-slick streets. Annabelle and Benny walked with them. Someone ushered them to the front of the procession, just behind the coffin, and handed Benny a bright red umbrella, which he held up high above his mother's head, proudly, like a brave flag or a pennant, until his arm stiffened and he thought it would break.