ACanadian-American author Ruth Ozeki is a filmmaker, Zen priest, and writing teacher. His third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2013. In this fourth, everything has – everything is made of – language. Everything is, in a sense, writing a book.
Benny Oh was still a boy when his father Kenji, a Korean-American jazz musician at the time a little tired of alcohol, was run over by a truckload of chickens in an alley behind their house on the outskirts of Chinatown. At the crematorium, all Benny can think of to ask his mother Annabelle is, “Are you going to burn his clarinet too?” Even though the body in the coffin is not really his father’s, Benny concludes, he still can’t stand to see him “thrown into the fire.” So he runs away following a voice calling him from “somewhere in the back of the building”. Later he begins to hear voices inside everything. Whether they are “metallic and squeaky” or “pleasantly inhuman”, they demand his attention, and they often want to tell him about their pain, their stories of abuse and abuse. Even the unloved leftovers in the fridge can speak, in “the moans of moldy cheeses, the sighs of old lettuce.” Half-eaten yogurt screams at him from the back shelf.
Soon nothing works for Benny and Annabelle. They still love each other but they fight. They fail to establish a new family culture. Where he cannot silence the voices, she cannot let go; where objects verbally harass him, for her they collect dust. For both of them, Kenji’s face becomes less easy to see. Annabelle prepares to make a “memory quilt” out of her clothes. Scattered across his bed, Kenji’s old shirts, it seems to his son, “are already trying to self-organize into a quilt shape.” But in the end, without Kenji to energize them, neither his son nor his widow can put their lives in order. After a year of vocals, Benny’s own attempts to self-organize appear doomed. When he can no longer concentrate at school, he is first diagnosed with ADHD; then, after stabbing himself with particularly sarcastic Chinese scissors, as suffering from “the prodromal phase of schizoaffective disorder.”
On page 50, Ozeki sold us the articulated object and began to establish a complex neurodivergent subjectivity. Benny’s journey into the affective schizo leads him to a local library, where he meets a shaven-headed girl known as The Aleph; TAZ, his non-binary ferret companion; and Slajov the Bottleman, an old drunk in a wheelchair who claims to be a famous Slovak poet and a conduit to the truth about things. These three come and go mysteriously, their lives a secret drama of Situationist intervention. Benny’s adventures in the community they created from books remind us vividly of Borges but also of Russell Hoban, Tim Powers or the early Thomas Pynchon. “What is real? Is a good question to ask, says the Bottleman, after prompting the boy to ask it: and on some level, it is the central question of our own relationship with Benny. What is real about her life as presented here? Are his voices true? Are the Aleph and his ferret real? Is all their fragile conspiracy against the Real real? Are there even parts of the library there? For Zen Buddhist Ozeki, perhaps, the answer is that only transience can be permanent.
The book of form and emptiness is enormous. Around the precarious and confusing lives of Benny and Annabelle, Ozeki folds around 500 pages of postmodern diversions and insertions, tackling the Angel of Walter Benjamin’s story, the problem of space waste, questions of masculinity. adolescent girl and sexual consent, and the lines of sight and limits of atypical creativity. Meanwhile, the novel itself is addressed to the reader; contains arguments with its own characters; delivers his Ted Talk on the Importance of Books and quietly teases everyone who has invested in the process of writing and reading them.
These elements are arranged in interlocking dialogues with each other and with Zen. They speak in human tones but always calm and without exception. “Terror, Ozeki will tell us, sets in like bad weather”; or, “She tried to stay positive.” The stylistic landscape is economical and simple – minimalist but not performative. While it’s sometimes hard to tell who the book is for – perhaps an intersectional demographic of children’s librarians and creative writing students – it’s even harder not to like good humor and good humor. Ozeki’s calm, dry and methodical spirit, his amorous adventures with linguistics and jazz and the absurd, his cautious optimism, his sweet parodies.
What she knows best how to convey, however, is the tidal wave of human life and the absurdity and heaviness of manufactured objects that accompanied her throughout the Anthropocene. You hang on to your things in case you get washed away and become like a thing yourself. What can you give up and what can’t?
At its core, it is a simple story about the links between poverty, mental health and loss. It’s often heartbreaking, but one would be wrong to interpret Annabelle and Benny’s struggles as a descent. Ozeki carefully celebrates the difference, not the patronizing dysfunction. Out of their fractured relationships, she does something so satisfying that it made me feel like I was being addressed not by an author but by a world, a world that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in a parallel. tenuous to ours: a world constructed from ideas that spill over into the text as a continuous event in real time. The voice of a commentary on the present – or a commentary on the present itself.