Review Of The
Box Man, by Kobo
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 3/25/10
I always 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.
Overall, The Box Man is not a bad book, but a bit of a let down as compared to Abe’s other works, and one to wait on for those unfamiliar with his work. It is dry in parts, detached, strange for the sake of being strange, and the characters are not any that readers will care about. 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.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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