Abe Kobo’s Box Man and other whittering

That being said, I read Abe Kobo’s The Box Man today, and just as I remembered, it was awesome.

While reading I wondered if Abe was doing a commentary on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Though looking up when Invisible Man was translated into Japanese, probably not.  HOWEVER, what The Box Man IS is a fairly modernist story about an entirely unreliable narrator who professes to live in a big cardboard box.  It is a masterpiece of paranoia, nonlinear writing, play with form, and obsession with seeing / being seen / being invisible even when seen.  That’s where the whole link to Ellison comes in — the invisible beings that are only invisible because of their place in society and societies’ unwillingness to *recognize* a certain type of person.  In Ellison’s place it was the educated black man, in Abe’s place it was the underclass/possibly even middle-class Japanese man.

Roughly the “narrator” is a man who has chosen to live in a box, and made it a useable and habitable space that he can also walk around with (he cut a window slit, hangs flashlight and radio on the ‘walls’, eats, sleeps, writes and even masturbates in his box.  This is a kind of alienation that we’re given to understand has some kind of link with rapid industrialization and urbanization as one of the first vignettes that breaks from narrative voice is of another man becoming a ‘box man’ out of his distaste for and obsession with a box man he can see from his apartment window.

There is so much in this book about watching and being watched, about the city dweller’s ability to not “see” even when looking, about the way in which desire is produced not only through seeing, but by being a scene and/or being seen (and a wonderful inversion of the Lacanian keyhole “gaze” where a woman who was being spied on by a young man who built a periscope to do so finds the boy, brings him into her house, and tells him he must be violated the same way she was in order to make it alright.  She tells him he has to strip and leaves the room, informing him that she’ll be watching through the keyhole.  Usually feminists who use Lacan’s ‘gaze’  talk about male gaze & power, this actually is more like the way Lacan’s gaze is something that “surprises [the voyeur] in the function of voyeur, disturbs him, overwhelms him and reduces him to a feeling of shame” (Lacan Sem XI 84)  But the thing is, the kid orgasms by being watched/violated by the woman and he then understands precisely how horrible his act of watching her was.  It’s an awesome vignette)

The waters become further muddied because of the “story” that ends up developing – somehow there is a man who acts as a doctor (fake-doctor), his mentor who used to be a doctor and who now has descended into drug use (druggie-doctor), the fake-doctor’s nurse, who used to be a patient and now works as a nurse… and these are somehow in relationship to the box-man narrator (who may or may not be the druggie-doctor, who has apparently taken to wandering around the town in a box), a man who wears a box who the box-man calls fake-box-man (who may be fake-doctor, it is not clear), and the fact that the nurse seems to be trying to get the box-man to take off his box by paying him/buying it off him.  Oh, and fake-doctor may (or at least someone did) have shot the box-man, thus making it imperative that he seek out the nurse and fake-doctor for treatment of his wound.

It doesn’t make any sense after you read the book either, but that’s really NOT the point of this work.  The point of view switches from first person to omniscient ( especially in the little vignettes ) to direct address that sometimes seems to address another character in a one sided conversation, and at others addresses the reader.  It’s also broken up by images of the urban city, small poems, and offset italicized notes that almost pretend to narrator-editor status because they often reference the color of ink the next section is written in, or the material the text is printed on, or deleted/inserted sections of text.

On the whole it calls into question the form of narrative *entirely* as there is no clear beginning or ending, but instead a kind of wrapping upon oneself that includes the wrapping of the narrative, the strongest moment of this is here:

“You evidently fancy to begin recording the past events of the day after tomorrow when nothing has yet occurred….Since you are trying to establish chronology of actions that you describe in the past tense, evidently those actions had already been going on when I began reading these notes.  You already were aware of the results of those actions, though I was not, for you could make an educated guess.  But I should like to read right on in your notes.  I cannot believe that there was any other clear purpose for the action than to bring death.” (118)

The “You” here may refer to the fake-doctor, who seems to have been writing up an explanation for why the druggie-doctor is found dead and washed up on shore, and the I is possibly the druggie-doctor himself and/or possibly the box-man, but it is never *actually* clear at all.  And it not only begs the reader return to ALL past-tense passages and reread them as somehow fictionalized attempts to write the future-as-past, but also calls attention to our expectations of narrative closure, ie: death.

And that?  is just the tip of the iceburg of awesomeness.  There’s a reason why I like Abe Kobo, and this is it.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
This entry was posted in japanese fiction, sci fi and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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