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Book Review: The Box Man by Kobo Abe

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I detest using the word “experimental” to describe any given work that is a bit unusual or not what is considered a conventional form of storytelling. Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: experimental. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut: experimental. Sandor Marai’s Embers: experimental. Well, I wouldn’t classify any of these works as “experimental” (at least not in the sense that publicists cling to), for the word lazily implies that the artist is just yanking his or her audience around, and furthermore, the word does carry some burden with it, in that, much of the works considered “experimental” nowadays are actually just a code word for crap. After all, one could have surely labeled Whitman’s free verse poetry as such back in his day, but would anyone do so now?

I bring all this up after having finished The Box Man, the third novel I’ve now read by the great Japanese writer Kobo Abe. And this book, while not something without merit, does read like something that would be labeled “experimental.” It is an odd tale, and thus far the worst of his books that I’ve read. It’s not that this is in any way a bad book, (although incoherent at times) but the characters are lifeless and the narrative leaves one cold. Also, it is a bit of a disappointing follow up to his great novel The Woman in the Dunes, which happens to be one of the best books I’ve ever read by any writer.

Translated by E. Dale Saunders, The Box Man lacks some of the lyrical highs present in some other Abe books, and the story is, for lack of a better word, odd. It tells the tale of a man who has created a box for his head. He has cut eyeholes out of it, and he wears the box around everywhere, ruminating about those around him. There is even a point where he masturbates inside the box. Let us hope he wiped it down afterwards before putting it back on. The man wanders the streets of Tokyo and meets a woman who seduces him, as well as a doctor who wishes to become a box man himself. The narrative is strange as well, for there are photos included within, as well as upside down text and different cases involving different individuals referred to by only letters. The letters are characters who don’t read very compellingly, and nor are they as memorable as those present from some of Abe's other books.

In one photo, for example, there are what appear to be four men standing in front of a urinal. Below, the caption reads: “The white tiles are bespeckled with spots the color of dried leaves, and notched in them are grooves to prevent slipping. A thin line of water undulates gently along the grooves. For a moment it forms a little puddle, then begins to flow again, and disappears under the door.”

Scenes as these leave the readers wondering what exactly is the point? These moments are more intrusive than anything, and distract from the overall narrative. Ok, the men are pissing and some piss gets onto the floor, right? I don’t deny that Abe had his intentions in the right place, and for a detached, impersonal read about a detached, impersonal character of whom is very strange, Abe manages to accomplish this.

But The Box Man is not a particularly fun read, and it’s not very insightful — at least when comparing it to the other two works of his I’ve read. It is a comparatively minor work. Yes, themes like identity, anonymity, and one’s existential place within the world are brought up, but such questions are better posed both in The Woman in the Dunes and also The Face of Another. So in a way, The Box Man is a bit of a rehash of some of his better material, and certainly not the book of Abe’s I recommend for anyone new to his work. It is odd because the back of the book describes the work as: “a marvel of sheer originality and a bizarrely fascinating fable about the nature of identity itself.” While I will agree that the fable is bizarre and it does deal with the nature of identity, again, oddness does not necessarily equal originality because many of these themes are better handled in the other two titles I’ve mentioned.

The Box Man actually does read more like an experimental work, though not necessarily in the best sense. It also happens to be the shortest of his books I’ve read, but clocking in at 178 pages, it feels like the longest.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • jmch

    A super-weird book, which disintegrates like the Box Man’s identity. Not the first time an Abe book trailed off this way. Read without expecting a plot and you’ll be okay.