In Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, after the death of his father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices, voices that belong to the things in his house — a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Benny doesn’t understand what the things are saying, but he senses their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, others are snide or angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous. Seeking refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers, Benny discovers a strange new world. He learns to ask important questions and is challenged to find his own voice amongst the many. Start reading the first chapter here.
Shhh . . . Listen!
That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it?
It’s okay if you can’t, though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously, and obviously the book is speaking to you, so try something more challenging. The chair you’re sitting on. The pencil in your pocket. The sneaker on your foot. Still can’t hear? Then get down on your knees and put your head to the seat, or take off your shoe and hold it to your ear— no wait, if there are people around they’ll think you are mad, so try it with the pencil first. Pencils have stories inside them, and they’re safe as long as you don’t stick the point in your ear. Just hold it next to your head and listen. Can you hear the wood whisper? The ghost of the pine? The mutter of lead?
Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
Sometimes it’s more than one voice. Sometimes it’s a whole chorus of voices rising from a single thing, especially if it’s a Made thing with lots of different makers, but don’t be scared. I think it depends on the kind of day they were having back in Guangdong or Laos or wherever, and if it was a good day at the old sweatshop, if they were enjoying a pleasant thought at the moment when that particular grommet came tumbling down the line and passed through their fingers, then that pleasant thought will cling to the hole. Sometimes it’s not so much a thought as a feeling. A nice warm feeling, like love, for example. Sunny and yellow. But when it’s a sad feeling or an angry one that gets laced into your shoe, then you’d better watch out because that shoe might do crazy shit, like marching your feet right up to the front of the Nike store, for example, where you could wind up smashing the display window with a baseball bat made of furious wood. If that happens, it’s still not your fault. Just apologize to the window, say I’m sorry to the glass, and whatever you do, don’t try to explain. The arresting officer doesn’t care about the crappy conditions in the bat factory. He won’t care about the chain saws or the sturdy ash tree that the bat used to be, so just keep your mouth shut. Stay calm. Be polite. Remember to breathe.
It’s really important not to get upset because then the voices will get the upper hand and take over your mind. Things are needy. They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them. So just remember, you’re like the air traffic controller— no wait, you’re like the leader of a big brass band made up of all the jazzy stuff of the planet, and you’re floating out there in space, standing on this great garbage heap of a world, with your hair slicked back and your natty suit and your stick up in the air, surrounded by all the eager things, and for one quick, beautiful moment, all their voices go silent, waiting till you bring your baton down.
Music or madness. It’s totally up to you.
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.
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The Book of Form and Emptiness
By Ruth Ozeki
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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.
Excerpted from The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. Copyright © 2021 by Viking Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.