Review - The Book of Form and Emptiness (Ozeki)

Rating: 4/5

Ozeki’s novel is good at the beginning and good at the end. The middle drags on for a little too long; I had at least a mild interest in figuring out how the characters end up. However, the interest levels get pretty low. It is a book about books, art, culture, the decline of reading, the increase of consumerism, capitalism, and the incredibly high number of things that are now a fixture in the lives of a few people. It is a portrayal of the present, as a dystopia, by a Book; that shows both the ability to buy things that jobs give people, and the precarious nature of those jobs in a society with no safety net. The novel is mostly sincere, but sometimes it crosses over into the cheesy. The novel has a character whose background is identical to Marie Kondo and whose philosophy is very similar (I guess) to Ozeki’s.

The most notable thing about this novel is probably the way that it is narrated. It has a character, the Book, which narrates the Boy’s story. And sometimes, the Boy chimes in and converses with the Book. The Marie Kondo character, Aikon, sometimes narrates her experience. The parts where the Book talks about itself, or about other books, are a bit cringe-y. It is a mixture of moral panic and cliches. It is hard to tell if this was an intentional choice. Here is a sample:

This state-of-the-art mechanical, computerized book-sorting system was installed as part of the renovation, and the books were beside themselves with loathing. They longed for human hands, for human touch. They bristled with ire at the indignity of their situation as they were spun, flipped, rotated, scanned, sorted, sent sliding down rackety gravity chutes into bins or hoisted hydraulically onto trolleys. It was more than any book could bear, and their lamentations rose above the clamor of the machines—We are not units! We, who once were sacred, next to God!

Ozeki’s book is really about Capitalism and Consumerism, the unlimited desire for things and the economic system that manufactures everything dirt cheap and then convinces everyone that they need this suddenly cheap stuff to stay at the top of a completely made up hierarchy. One of the homeless people that Benny hangs out with is German (a stand-in for Marx, perhaps?) and theorizes quite a bit (sometimes boringly). There is some purely theoretical, interesting rambling from another character:

It’s the fucking world we live in. It’s capitalism that’s crazy. It’s neoliberalism, and materialism, and our fucked-up consumer culture that’s crazy. It’s the fucking meritocracy that tells you that feeling sad is wrong and it’s your fault if you’re broken, but hey, capitalism can fix you! Just take these miracle pills and go shopping and buy yourself some new shit! It’s the doctors and shrinks and corporate medicine and Big Pharma, making billions of dollars telling us we’re crazy and then peddling us their so-called cures. That’s fucking crazy.

… but the most interesting part is the empathetic way in which Ozeki portrays the disgusting consumerism of her characters:

She [Benny’s mother] went back to the computer, typed in $50, and then sat back, feeling relieved. It was a bit of insurance. So as long as her maximum was the highest, she would still win. 3:59. Less than a minute left. She began to count down, and then, with only twenty seconds to go, the bid jumped to $32.45. And then it jumped again, and again! Not one, but two snipers were bidding on her Hansel and Gretel! She held her breath and crossed her fingers and counted–five, four, three, two . . . The Congratulations, You’ve Won! message popped on to her screen, along with her winning bid. $49.45. She sat back in her chair, triumphant. It felt so good to win.

Benny’s mother is a hoarder who is living in a house with a lot of things. She keeps buying things that she has no need for: books, craft supplies, snow globes. She keeps archives of old newspapers, from her job, inside the house. She doesn’t take out the trash. The picture of the house that is painted is astonishing, not very different from some of the worst kept houses that you would see on “tidying up” TV shows like Marie Kondo’s.

Speaking of Marie Kondo: Aikon is a Zen monk who is basically Marie Kondo, and also a stand-in for Ozeki’s voice of reason and (one presumes) beliefs. The similarity between Kondo and this character in the book is quite stunning. They both write a book, tell people how to fold clothes, arrange things, their books become a sensation in America, they star in an American TV show. Ozeki’s portrayal of Aikon does not feel lazy as a result though, because we never get inside Marie Kondo’s mind in her shows. Aikon comes at the “problem of too many things” from a completely different mindset: That mindset is refreshing. She lists the things that Ozeki talks about in this book as things that her producers asked her not to talk about:

Of course, the solution was quite simple: people just had to stop buying so much stuff, but when she mentioned this on a recent call with the American producers, their response was less than enthusiastic, and later they followed up with a memo, asking her not to talk about topics like that on the pilot. When Kimi [Aikon’s assistant] inquired what they meant by “topics like that,” they sent her a list: consumerism, capitalism, materialism, commodity fetishism, online shopping, and credit card debt. Speaking critically of such topics was un-American, they explained. American viewers wanted proactive solutions. Not buying was not proactive.

The final notable characteristic of the novel is the fact that things “speak.” They express themselves by hissing or shouting or creating a ruckus. They are silent when they are well cared for. And Benny is the only one who is able to listen to them. That is a pretty good idea. Benny is meticulously clean and organized. Undoubtedly, Benny is the hero, the ideal to aspire to.

I had not thought about things expressing themselves; I was assigning some feelings to them but not assigning a voice to them. (I have not looked at things as “just things” for quite some time now. Most of things I have I classify as tools, and been grateful about the ways in which they have made doing something easier.) The framework of thinking about things wanting care from their owners is powerful: It gets you to think about what a thing’s ideal state would be: why you should fold socks properly, why you should empty your bag each night. This deep respect for things and an acknowledgment of the role that they serve is important to me. By looking at tools as status symbols (“Do you have the latest iPhone?”) or just things to be “used and discarded” (“The headphones are around here, somewhere.”) diminishes them.

There is a very touching recollection of Aikon’s experiences working on relief efforts after the 2011-03-11 earthquake in Japan. I have lived in Japan for 4 years now, and I know that the 3.11 earthquake features prominently in the collective imagination of everyone who experienced that horrible disaster. The reminder that Japan is disaster-prone is everywhere: yearly drills, letters from the local government, news articles about disasters in other parts of Japan. But it is quite easy to believe that surely, you would not be affected by it. One must remain on guard against that complacency, as long as they live in Japan:

This was another important lesson in the impermanence of all things. Japan lies in a seismically active zone, so earthquakes are not uncommon. Disaster can strike at any moment, but we forget this, distracted by the bright, shiny comforts of our everyday lives. Wrapped in a false sense of security, we fall asleep, and in this dream, our life passes. The earthquake shook us awake, and the tsunami washed away our delusions. It caused us to question our values and our attachment to material possessions. When everything I think of as mine–my belongings, my family, my life–can be swept away in an instant, I have to ask myself, What is real? The wave reminded us that impermanence is real. This is waking up to our true nature. Already broken.

Other notable quotes:

Aikon talks about her book becoming a sensation:

Why was it that women could never work hard enough to quiet their nagging fear that they were not enough? That they were falling behind? That they could and should be better? No wonder they wanted simple rules to govern the way T-shirts should be folded, children raised, careers managed, lives lived. They needed to believe there was a right way and a wrong way–there had to be! Because if there was a right way, then perhaps they could find it, and if they found it and learned the rules, then all the pieces of their lives would fall into place and they would be happy.

Benny’s father talks about the moon landing:

It was 1969, and I was very young boy and worrying because in Japan, we have a fairy tale about a rabbit who lives on the moon, and I was afraid about the big American astronaut will hurt the moon rabbit. But everybody told me don’t worry! American astronaut is very kind man. He won’t hurt any moon rabbits! But still I was worrying.” “But it was okay, right?” “It was okay. We watched on the old black-and-white TV set because we have no Internets back then. Then we see the first astronaut, Mr. Neil Armstrong, go down the ladder to the moon and say some famous words–One small footstep for a man. One big jump for everybody else. Something like that. You know those words? Very famous.