Early in The Book of Form and Emptiness. we learn about the sudden accidental death of Kenji Oh, a jazz clarinetist who was born in Japan and had been living in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Annabelle, and their kid, Benny. The book is mostly Benny’s story—it’s about how he starts hearing voices after his dad’s death, and about how he finds his own voice, by listening to the voice of a Book that narrates his life. But it’s also the story of Annabelle and her loneliness and hoarding, and of other people whose paths intersect with theirs: there’s a teenage runaway artist who calls herself the Aleph, and a guy named Slavoj who Benny thinks of as a scary/crazy wheelchair-bound homeless guy, but who is also a famous Slovenian poet. And mixed in with their stories, we get excerpts of a fictional Marie-Kondo-ish book called Tidy Magic, by a Buddhist nun who writes about what she’s learned about “the impermanence of form, and the empty nature of all things.”

It’s a lot, but in a good way; as Benny goes from home to school to the public library to a psych ward, those pieces of other stories enrich the narrative and tie things together. “Things are needy,” the Book says, early on. “They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.” Later, the Aleph tells Benny that its “capitalism that’s crazy”, not him or her or Slavoj. Aikon, the author of Tidy Magic, notes that there’s a solution: “people just had to stop buying so much stuff.” But the producers of the TV show she’s making tell her not to talk about “consumerism, capitalism, materialism, commodity fetishism, online shopping, and credit card debt.” Meanwhile, threads intersect: Annabelle keeps buying snow globes on eBay; the Aleph has an art project where she makes snow globes, but of scenes of disaster (a snow globe of 9/11, a snow globe of Hurricane Katrina, a snow globe of Fukushima). And through it all there’s also a lot about books and reading: I like how the library is a place of refuge and learning and connection and possibility for Benny and the Aleph and Slavoj, and I like how the Book has a lot of good bookish insights, like: “one book, when read by different readers, becomes different books, becomes an ever-changing array of books that flows through human consciousness like a wave.”

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