Abstract: A critical review of The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
Admittedly, I don’t normally go for this sort of book, call it pseudo-up-market-chick-lit, or women’s-lit or thank-god-it’s-not-me-pity-lit or bad-lit, whatever genre the market forces have currently glommed on for this type of fiction. But, I was in a small historic town in the middle of the UK and I wanted a break from my other reading, philosophy and a great work of literary fiction, so I entered a tiny bookstore ten minutes before it was due to close and from the roughly twenty adult fiction books the store carried I chose The Book of Form and Emptiness (TBFE) as possibly less pathetic than the others. I did, however laugh at another book, which I didn’t get — the rip of the philosophical trolley problem premise of a madman who tells an airline pilot that his whole family will live only if he crashes the plane. Of course nobody needs the story because all they want is to know is how the book ends, which means two things: First they have to suffer the insipid writing as a couple quick reads from different sections proved to me they would, and second, they already know the answer, which anyone with a brain can guess, that nobody decent dies and and it’s all about a cheesy trick. Some online note said the author “put her decade of experience as a flight attendant to good use” and thus to bastardize Carl Spackler’s line in Caddyshack, “So she’s got that going for her.” No wonder I can never get that second drink on a plane, they’re all in the back penning novels. Notwithstanding that someone on Goodreads wrote about the book “mediocre and the author needs writing lessons,” this will probably be snatched up by Whoreywood and turned into a formulaic “blockbuster” for the formulaic-suckled consumetariat and I’ll say: Boy was I embarrassed. Time was against me, the store now closed in two minutes. In flipping pages of TBFE it seemed like there was a touch of meta-commentary on books, and I’d never read Ozeki’s work so I bought it. One can try about anything once — and I did, and again: Boy was I embarrassed.
I’ll allow the writing to lead this critique, positioned up front like a trigger warning, so that readers will immediately know what they’re dealing with.
She didn’t like the Whole Foods salad bar. She could buy perfectly good
lettuce at the cheap, unhealthy, discount supermarket and make her own
salads. She could go today after work. She would need a salad spinner too. She used to have one around the house somewhere, but she hadn’t seen it for a while. Well, she could always buy another online. I call this sort of pointless and inept writing filler as in a substance added to another to
increase its weight or bulk. Or here is another excerpt,
She had a hangnail too. She wondered if there might be a nail clipper in her handbag. She had one once. Several, actually.
I had a hangnail once. Do you want to hear about it? Of course you don’t. These nailgun sentences don’t relate to the plot, they say and do little, and let’s be clear the novel is not a stylistic attempt with short declarative sentences in a descriptive mode, that would be David Peace in his fascinating book Red or Dead, nor is it an attempt at flat realism as found in the work of Robbe-Grillet in Jealousy. Some sections are more dialogic but the tin-ear tone and woodchopping sequencing of sentences remain standard. Perhaps appropriately, because I was reading
the book while the UK countryside, I might allow A. E. Housman to remark, as he did in A Shropshire Lad:
“But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, / it gives a chap the belly ache.”
There is one sentence, and I found only one in the entire novel, where Ozeki apparently tries her hand at Pynchon, “The bus slowed and performed its cumbersome pneumatic genuflection, wheezing and chuffing to accommodate a disabled passenger.”
Beyond the flat tire of this little purple prose experiment we get to ask questions like ‘why focus the word play on a bus that has nothing to do with the plot’ and ‘why does the author want to emphasize the identity
of the person as disabled rather than to emphasize the person with a disability since the book at times moralizes about the right way to say things? More on the book’s moralizing coming up.
Two other sentences of ridiculous merit stand out. The kid, one of the two main characters, when little crawls under the tall wooden stool a librarian sits on when undertaking story time. Later he reflects back and says,
I remember some things, like the warm lady smell under her stool.
Nasty, and frankly, this sounds like a job for a gastroenterologist. Another sentence begins,
Pigeons strutted on the ground by their feet…
What else do pigeons strut on if not their feet? Although generously this could be my reading due to the ambiguity of the sentence construction, it is an author’s responsibility to recognize and rewrite sentences allowing for misreadings. As you can guess, the remainder of writing is up to the standard of these few excerpts.
The plot is quickly and easily provided: An obese hoarder’s husband dies in an accident. Her son is mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, but I’m no expert with the DSM-5, and for him inanimate things in the world feel and talk to him, not all things but only some things. The mother and son meet a cast of stereotypical characters as the novel’s pages turn. There is the threat of the mother losing her job and a threat of the son being removed by child protective services because he keeps skipping school and she’s a hoarder with a poor parenting abilities. As the plot idles, because it doesn’t really go anywhere, she keeps hoarding and the son is in and out of both school and a psychiatric institution. In other words there is precious little force of
novelistic drive. By the end of the novel they both get “help.” For her, help means that a professional service and some of her son’s friends, including the homeless man in a wheelchair, come in to remove the junk from the hoarder’s apartment in what might as well be a review of the TLC show Hoarding: Buried Alive. Help for her son means somehow begins to hear fewer voices. The book wraps up with a memorial service for the deceased husband after which mother and son decide to resume their cohabitation although they were cohabitating all along except for the nights the kid hid out at the public library. Please don’t infer my account to equate with redemption or renewal. Mostly though, the entire plot reads like a hyper-extended Dr. Phil show. I imagine the mother and son sitting on stage in those high-chairs and Phil saying with his moo-cow bellow, “Sooo, you’re a hoarder with an eating disorder and your son has been in and out of the adolescent psychiatry unit. Do yooo not see a problem here?”
Presumably the novel takes place in the summer of 2020 but it reads more like early 90’s Nirvana mindset trying really hard to be contemporary and its main strategy in doing so is topic dropping.
Topic dropping remains one of my pet peeves in writing and it’s rampant in this book. Topic dropping means inserting in a non-sequitur manner, without any relevance to anything in the novel, the buzzwords related to current events or cultural trends. Here topics that are dropped include summer riots, global change, recycling, school shootings, gun violence events, bombings, consumerism, eco-concerns, Marx, identity phrases, non-binary gender identification (as with a ferret) and so on. I often think, why not just make a list, and lo and behold there are simply lists of some of these topic events in this book, for example a list of school shootings in the
United States. Of course not a one of these topics has the remotest connection to the plot of the novel, so you may wonder, as I do, why they are here and how they help. Keep seeking because you won’t find an answer. Now I’m speculating but maybe fans of such topic dropping negotiate life by dropping current buzzwords as a form of tribe-based virtue signaling and maybe other members of the tribe respond in kind, automatically and positively, including when authors topic drop in a novel. Pavlov might be amused but all I see is George Eliot turning over in her grave. When a new subject or event is suddenly introduced into the fabricated structure of a novel we seek the novelistic reason for it. The issue should matter in a novelistic way. It should affect events or characters, it should provide more forward drive to the plot, or it should
meaningful impact setting in a manner that reflects back onto character and plot. Obviously my deontological ‘should’ allows for exceptions typically found in more experimental works by authors like Beckett or Robbe-Grillet, but for most novels the rule is apt. Another reason authors
may like using topic drops is that they think that reflecting prevailing standards, no matter how minimally, creates relevancy. We can go straight to Heidegger on this for his critique, “the validity of literature is assessed by the latest prevailing standard. The prevailing standard in turn is made and controlled by the organs for making public civilized opinions.” (5) What this means is that if a novel simply references subjects and events in the immediate or recent history then it reinforces the accepted dominant narrative and is thus given validity by those whose job it is to help create the public opinions. For lowest common denominator writing the incorporation of the current buzzwords is expected. One can hardly imagine a mass market action thriller without its incorporating recent societal angst points and phrases, spy jargon, or details of technology
right down to the serial numbers and thrust to weight ratio of the latest precision strike missiles.
A critique of this is outlined by Timothy Clark who writes, “The true work of art does not simply take things or objects already in existence and then re-present them, as in the tired old view of art as a sort of ‘reflection’ of reality or society.” (6) I find Clark’s characterization a good lead into
that difficult to describe difference between serious literature and other forms of writing, genre writing perhaps. So, on a positive note, simply re-presenting items of angst of current North American society as bland re-presentations is what Ozeki does well. Why though, I ask, would an
author spend all that time writing a novel doing this? To me it seems like grossly wasted time given the stale result. Topic dropping is an even more minor version of re-presenting in which there is only the naming of the re-presentation, not even the re-presentation itself. It is simply mentioning Chekhov’s gun in the first act and then never showing it or using it in a later act. But with Ozeki the rule seems to be mention everything: the gun, the knife, the sword, the epee, the bomb, the missile, the dart, the blowgun, the AR-15, the pistol, the double-barreled shotgun, and
anything else that might appear in the news without ever bringing them up or referencing them again. Furthermore, topic dropping runs the potential for novelistic problems. For example, in TBFE at one point there are city wide riots mentioned. The author draws upon, most likely, the
riots in the USA of 2020 that resulted in about 20 deaths, nearly one thousand injuries, and $2 billion or more of damage claims to insurance. So apparently the city is in disarray. What does this mean for the plot? Nothing. The people travel around the city as usual and the police are
available to respond three at a time to a non-emergency mental issue with the kid. Then, for the remainder of the book we hear nothing about the riots. See Eugenides’ book Middlesex if situating a novel within a riot climate is your idea of fun. Finally, topic dropping names ideas that we
already know and that we have easily categorized, and resultantly the novel closes down.
An odd lot of oddities cause pause: The obese hoarder gets an ergonomic chair that she can’t fit into and when the technician who delivered the chair adjusts its arms outward she considers him fat-shaming. Kids with little education seem to know all about Fluxus, and philosophical thought experiments, and the Situationists (which is mis-characterized in the novel)
and it is doubtful that even most adults know about these things. The gothish artist makes small snow globes. One contains both 110-floor World Trade Center towers, to give a sense of scale, but in looking at the globe the kid can see people running and their hands, which presents a significant scale relation problem. Objects that speak and feel for the kid all have the same voice as humans, but if the kid’s issue is schizophrenia this may be the way it works so I won’t dwell on this. But, more generally all of the characters also speak with about the same voice and the only
people with unique voices are the angry Chinese man and the Slovakian homeless man, apparently letting us know that people who are not of the USA, or even if they are but who are visibly not white, can never excel at speaking English. The kid bumps his head but later it is bandaged. Why? A small cut on his hand immediately causes him to fall unconscious. Unlikely. The binary eschewing they-identifying, ferret (technically the word should be ferrets because the identification is plural) is still unwittingly supporting a binary by setting up a plural versus a singular pronoun — I’m just pointing out the limits to the idea. And while on the topic isn’t a human forcing a particular gender identification upon a ferret a problem of animal ethics? The woman Zen monk is the one who cleans the temple for the male Zen Master, which would be sexist by her terms. The same monk goes on to write a stupid book titled Tidy Magic about
cleaning up clutter. But the monk, must really have a beginner’s mind because she is described as putting in long hours and staying up late into the night to work on this little self help book. I doubt that ‘here are some tips to decluttering your life’ needs the sort of time and concentration that Joyce needed for Ulysses, but apparently so for this monk. Shake your head in disbelief as the Tidy Magic book author then packs giant auditoriums with fans who give her standing ovations — perhaps this is a manifestation of Ozeki’s own fantasies? Or, does Tidy Magic hold the answers to life, such as the Monk-Key to All Mythologies? (Apologies George). Once her own monk master dies, this author/monk founds her non-sexist temple that apparently only accepts women, but later she demonstrates her anger at any form of sexism. And finally, this monk who presumably follows a shojin ryori diet has no problem frequenting Red Lobster, McDonald’s, and White Castle while on the North American book tour. But of course, as always, contradictions and hypocrisy abound. There is the sentence, “She remembered she hadn’t eaten in a while” that lets us know that she as an obese woman doesn’t sense hunger and has to remember to do so. Much more could be detailed but it is time to end the misery by welcoming a guest star, today it’s that evil monster that streams through bad books. Presenting…The Sob. The Sob is a Lovecraftian undescribed monster that apparently sneaks into bodies of people in poorly written novels and
once there it violently emerges from their stomach or lungs, always in the same way, as it does for the obese hoarder, “A sob forced its way up her throat.”
As mentioned, part of the TBFE concerns the self help book Tidy Magic written by the female Zen monk and it seems that this is to perhaps intended to function in two ways: as the book prompting change in the plot (it doesn’t really do that) and a metaphor for this novel (which
it also doesn’t do). Both books it seems are to function like a koan that prompts an awakening in hoarders or readers. But let’s briefly contrast here. A Zen koan is often a phrase or question, presenting paradoxes perhaps, for contemplation that are designed to awaken a student of Zen to
a new world. We know little about Tidy Magic as found in a few glib excerpts and the obese hoarder basically never reads it so we can’t ascribe any awakening there. Ozeki’s novel neither functions as a novelistic koan because it functions in a manner that is exactly opposite a koan.
Ozeki’s tell-don’t-show method closes down any possibility of an enlarged world. We have no breathing room, no opening in the way Moby Dick is sensed to be dealing with magnificent through-line themes below the text and plot. This tell-don’t-show basically takes ideas we already know, presents them in ways we already know, and thus fails to allow space for readers to expand their reading of the novel to the world — and the topic drops do not solve this problem. Also, don’t be fooled by the frequent references to Borges (the name Aleph is used for the gothish artist). To repeat a theme, Ozeki’s closing down is quite the opposite of Borges’ works
which almost consistently allow space to open up. Topic drops by Ozeki and the nods to philosophers, such as the homeless man (that Ozeki calls Slavoj as in Žižek, or objects as things similar to humans in the schizophrenic mind of the kid, a sort of nodding to ideas of flat
ontology as usual have nothing to do with either.
One way to consider fiction is to think about the world — that the author/novel creates, presupposes, and is dependent upon for its story. In the world of TBFE we find a number of unsettling world views. I don’t mind unsettling views or even those that offend me, and I support viewpoint diversity, but when part of a subtext of a novel moralizes about the right way I should think, then it’s fair game if I turn the tables on the moralizer to probe for contradictions. Long story short, in the book, first-worlders are moralizing nosy-bodies who value their way of life.
They spout phrases along the lines of ‘every action affects others in the world’ and ‘one hand feels what happens to the other hand,’ all the while ignoring the real plight of others (they are quick to other while pretending they do not) and in doing so they shirk responsibility for fundamental changes in their life that potentially could alter the world’s inequity in a meaningful systemic or structural manner. Their goal is to retain their way of life, savoring all the goodies deemed due to them as first-worlders while ignoring, for example, the fact that children spend their days mining coltan in the DRC’s Kivu province that in turn allows them to upgrade their
cell phone every year or two. (1) You know, because you can’t live without a cell phone. Others, from this viewpoint are best considered as stereotypes to be appreciated and the book’s major supporting characters are just this. There is the gothish artist who uses drugs, the homeless man in a wheelchair who is called Bottleman and who lives in the library bathroom and lobby, the Chinese man who is mostly angry and who speaks with the somewhat offensive stereotypical article-less speech, the nerdy librarian, the European security guards, the tattooed nurse’s aide.
But all this is great presumably for the fact that life is a wonderful collection of types, especially when essentialized by mostly negative stereotypes. I imagine readers who like this sort of stereotypical “diversity” saying, ‘Isn’t it great we have drug addicts and mental illness with poor
support systems, and homeless people who must live in a library bathroom…isn’t it just wonderful! Wouldn’t life be simply boring if we didn’t have homeless people or global south children to mine coltan who form the object of our performative sympathy?” “Oh,” they might respond, “this is just a novel” without recognizing how their preferred novels reflect their normative beliefs.
This pervasive subtext of the book is one that I found offensive, and it deserves to be called out because, again, the book attempts to subtly moralize against it. This subtext also superficially reinforces the same capitalist blindness and lack of concern for the world that we find in North America in particular. Even the Japanese Zen monk gets off on the success of her cleaning book as though monetary success in a capitalist society is what matters most in life. According to the authors of The End of the End of History, these North American capitalist believing virtue signalers are currently suffering from Neoliberal Order Breakdown Syndrome,
(NOBS). They have “the fundamental weakness of the dominant contemporary ideology…an inability to explain the politics of the present, or to reconcile any of its own numerous contradictions.” (2) And later the authors characterize their mindset further, “But diversity is something they demand for others while they reside in gentrified urban cores, thus not accepting genuine diversity where they live. This relatively privileged stratum operates from an assumption of moral superiority all the while not acknowledging the existence of hierarchy.” (3) So it seems the same attitude remains in play in the novel, namely to ignore the inconvenient contradictions.
If the fans of this book really believe one of the book’s catch phrases, “The truth is that everything depends on everything else” it would seem they might have some ability to recognize their contradictions they live and appreciate in this novel, but apparently they cannot. So all the nods to moral virtue and care for others that the novel attempts to offer are subverted by this overwhelming capitalist subtext. Evidently in this context, first-worlders enjoy watching the public display of the pathologies and pains of their lesser-thans, such as hoarders on television or an obese hoarder in this novel. And, isn’t it fantastic that a person who is jobless, homeless, and has mobility issues really wants to help a first-worlder clean their hoarded crap, because you know that’s the the duty of lesser-thans to be at the service of first-worlders. That the author merely mentions Marx and wrongly uses ‘Marxian alienation’ in mentioning consumerism and
commodity fetishism fails as critique. The novel at all times aligns with basic North American marketing norms that reinforce the message in which a performative gesture of awareness is good so long as the fundamental hyper-consumerist lifestyle is retained.
All of this contrasts what the Chair of the Judges for the Women’s Prize said, that the book stood out for its “sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour and poignancy.” (4) I came away seriously wondering why a Women’s Prize for Fiction would choose to endorse the book given what I’ve discussed above.
The final pages of the this book extract the remainder of our nerves and patience with a painfully slow, inch by inch, account of the cleaning out of the hoarded junk from the hoarder’s apartment. Riveting stuff to end on, weakened only by the absence of commercials. I ripped out the pages I’d taken notes upon (I listened for the book’s screams as I did so and sadly heard none) and I left the book in a b&b in Edinburgh. If books have feelings, like the kid believes they do, then I hope the book feels a great deal of remorse for the wrong committed by it’s being.
(1) See for example https://issafrica.org/iss-today/child-miners-the-dark-side-of-the-drcs-coltanwealth
(2) Hochuli, A., Hoare, G., and Cunliffe, P. (2021). The End of the End of History. Zero Books. p.
(3) ibid. p. 132. Based on Christopher Guillry, Twilight of the Elites, 2019.
(4) Announcing the 2022 winner of the Women’s Prize! Retrieved from https://
(5) Heidgger, M.. Poetry, Language, Thought. (1971). Harper & Row. p. 213–214.
(6) Clark, T. (2011). Martin Heidegger, second edition. Routledge. p. 107.