I find critical theory deeply fascinating and enjoyable to read. Partially because I like the challenge of dense texts that build up specialized vocabularies to try, and partially because, for me at least, they create a space to unpack the affective experiences of culture. Despite my personal love of theory, I am also very aware of the fact that it can be arrogant, obtuse, and obscure in ways that make “theory and criticism” dreaded courses for many in university settings, while also being largely invisible to non-experts who walk into an art institution. However, Ruth Ozeki’s 2021 novel The Book of Form and Emptiness upends those expectations of what it means to encounter theory and reframes notions of what it means to know theory in ways that are thought-provoking and far more accessible than a university syllabus. Through a deeply moving story about family, grief, and hearing voices, Ozeki models ways of engaging with art histories through the happenings of Fluxus, the writing of Walter Benjamin, and the desire to engage meaningfully with those around us.
The themes that I am discussing here are a relatively minor element of The Book of Form and Emptiness and are contextualized by the driving plot of the novel which revolves around Benny, a young boy who is experiencing the onset of schizophrenia, and his mother who has developed a hoarding problem to cope with the death of her husband. Although Benny narrates most of the story and lacks the perspective to make objective assessments of their situation, the reader comes away with the sense that both Benny and his mother are falling through the cracks and are heading towards disaster. Ozeki does an admirable job of subverting the problematic expectations that would arise for many readers encountering the story, building a novel that shows that though both characters struggle, they are not doomed to lives of suffering and in fact pursue meaningful lives with an intentionality that side-steps the expected trajectory of their stories.
Benny is only in middle school, but his pursuit of meaning in the midst of the confusing onset of hallucinations leads him to a kind of dense philosophical writing that is often bemoned by students forced to read it for class. Benny is introduced to concepts in theory through two key mentor characters: Aleph (a slightly older teenager also struggling with her own mental health) who takes the position of the artist, and Slavoj (a older wheelchair bound alcoholic formally educated in philosophy) who takes the position of a professor. Like most people who find themselves reading theory, Benny is invited into those ideas through an encounter with art orchestrated by Aleph, who is staging small happenings by giving Benny and others slips of paper with instructions for mundane but disruptive actions in the spirit of Fluxus Happenings. Through his willingness to enact Aleph’s happenings, Benny is guided to the library where he finds a postcard of Paul Klee’s artwork Angel Novus accompanied by excerpts from Walter Benjamin’s writing on the Angel of History. He is intrigued by both the image and the text, but as he attempts to dig into Benjamin’s work alone, he quickly becomes frustrated – that is until Aleph arrives to introduce him to Slavoj. Where Aleph’s presence shows how artists take up particular moments or images from larger bodies of theory through creative work, Slavoj is the voice of the academy in the story, despite his appearance as an occasionally incoherent alcoholic. He gives Benny context for Benjamin’s ideas, both philosophically and historically, which would be recognizable to most students who have sat through an introductory theory class; but he also adds elements of his own interpretation based on his reading of a much wider range of theorists, becoming a secondary source to the primary text of Benjamin. It seems likely that Ozeki intentionally aligns Slavoj’s character with the real life thinker and writer Slavoj Zizek, but the reader’s ability to make that connection is largely irrelevant to the functioning of the character. Together, Aleph and Slavoj invite Benny into the conversations of theory but outside of the more normalizing frameworks of an art institution or the academy Benny activates and interprets these ideas through the lens of his experience of the world with schizophrenia.
While Benny’s interpretation of theory is compelling, readers are also reminded that he is not intended to be teaching the reader about the ‘correct’ interpretation of these thinkers. Other narrators such as The Book, one of the voices that Benny hears, intervene in Benny’s connection with theory to remind readers that The Book of Form and Emptiness is not necessarily didactic on the subject of how expert audiences engage these ideas. The interjections of The Book become an important strategy through which Ozeki ensures that she does not misinform readers without dismissing the value of how Benny encounters theory. To me at least, the balancing of Benny’s more personal interpretation with the intruding voice of the academic establishment is what models a better way of presenting theory to a wider public. There is certainly a place for structured and well-researched applications of theory but it is not useful to impose those frameworks on people who are bringing a version of theoretical texts into the everyday world view. Benny’s reading of Benjamin is limited -by his age, by his mental health condition, by the books that he has access to – but thinking about the Angel of History helps him to face the catastrophic events of his life, from his father’s death to his recent hospitalization.
Though theory runs through The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki has not written a book about theory in the way that academic study may have taught some readers to expect. Instead she has written a story that suggests more flexible ways of engaging with notions in theory or philosophy which can be brought into everyday life, even if those interpretations depart from the standard line of academic thought. Benny’s study of Benjamin, as well as the mentors that attempt to guide him through it, are far from ideal; but by framing art movements like Fluxus and theorists like Walter Benjamin with Benny’s struggle, Ozeki suggests that there are more ways to discuss theory, ones that would be more relevant and more interesting to a non-specialist audience. It is the kind of book that I think both undergraduates and arts professionals could benefit from reading to think about why theory is meaningful to them and how we might make it relevant to viewers and readers of creative work.
If you like this post feel free to leave a comment, if you really liked this post consider supporting me by buying me a coffee here. If this topic was interesting to you, my post discussing Marlon James’s fantasy novel Black Leopard Red Wolf as a prompt for exploring erased histories may be of interest, that post can be found here.
The Book of Form and Emptiness has been shortlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for fiction, you can check the outcome of that prize here.