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The Disorienting Novels of Kobo Abe

I wanted to read all of the novels by one person in a short time, kind of like a rapid upload of someone’s whole career into my brain. I’d never read a whole book by Kobo Abe, frequently referred to as the Japanese Kafka, despite already owning three...

I wanted to read all of the novels by one person in a short time, kind of like a rapid upload of someone’s whole career into my brain. I’d never read a whole book by Kobo Abe, frequently referred to as the Japanese Kafka, despite already owning three of them. So after watching Teshigahara’s excellent film adaptation of Abe’s first novel, The Woman in the Dunes, I bought the four other still-in-print Abe novels online and dove in.


The Woman in the Dunes (1962)

Abe’s most well-known novel, and for good reason.  It gets very close to a feeling that I suspect many of us have had—that life is often fucked, and we are all trapped in an endless cycle of shit. Ostensibly it’s about an insect collector sent on a work trip into the desert, who then becomes stranded in a city that is stuck inside a pit of quicksand. There he meets a woman who seems determined to make him stay in the pit and be her husband. There are few who could make such an absurd scenario seem so plausible and familiar, like squeezing humanity from a bear trap, but Abe pulls it off. Emotions are close and logically considered, fleshed in the reader in a way that makes them almost trapped in the body of the protagonist too—a labyrinth with no real gap for exit. The first of many great examples of Abe’s amazing ability to take a bizarre, implausible situation—one that shouldn’t be able to sustain a novel-length text—and somehow make it seem as familiar as anything more largely considered “real.”

Representative Sentence: “Thanks to this education, I have to experience a new sensation in order to appreciate new pain.”

The Face of Another (1964)

This is by far my favorite of Abe’s novels. Mainly due to the odd tension he is able to sustain through long, often philosophically concerned monologues of a man who, after burning his face, decides to fashion and wear a mask in an effort to locate the social effect of the self and how that self can be split. It kept reminding me of a more universally centered American Psycho, 30 years before Ellis’s, with even more layering of psychological effect and more eerie calm as the narrator continues revealing himself, burying himself, and creating a new self over and over again, unto a whole. This novel captures so well the sense of being a person imprisoned both in the self and in the thousands of other selves surrounding any given person. It explores the weird interlocking rooms in which from one to the next you could become anybody depending on who is counting and what you carried in. I keep thinking I want to nail this book to the wall in my closet.


Representative Sentence: “Feeling that any expression I carried behind my bandage and my sunglasses would not get out had made me perverse.”

The Ruined Map (1967)

Abe is a total master of making his on-paper characters operate as if they were in a video game. Terrain is often both mutative and overlapping; one gets the sense even in the gaps between his books that there is a code behind the language that causes his narrators to feel a continuous sense both of being lost and in search of something. They are constantly trying to parse their current state even as the state changes around them, tied together with images of insects, horses, maps, masks, and an overall sense of impossibility to time and land. The Ruined Map is perhaps the most effective in Abe’s range of laying the mechanisms of that space bare so that you can witness how it disorients its contents spatially, temporally, and emotionally. Using noir tenets to draw you forward and existential passages to keep you involved, this novel, in which almost nothing ever really happens, is fascinating in how it seems to be constantly on the cusp of revealing itself until again it caves in onto a new level on the far side of the current surface. You don’t have to ever arrive anywhere to value the signal.

Representative Sentence: “I was overcome by an impulse to stop time right there and limit the world to what I saw before me.”


The Box Man (1973)

Social anxiety often appears in Abe’s work as allegory, but it’s never so temporal as to strand the reader in anything other than recognition of the submersion of the character in not only his surroundings, but his ability to parse them. The Box Man is another great example of Abe’s ability to stretch a ridiculous premise into art. Here, a guy decides to join the quasi homeless and start living inside a box on the street. What seems an impulsive decision leads to a series of events that strand the narrator again in an impossible continuum, like one of those Chinese finger traps populated with weird marooned characters of the sort you might find waiting in the code in an MMORPG, prodding the narrator further and further into himself only to find the hole endless. I don’t love The Box Man, but I love Abe for keeping at it beyond the necessity for resolution in the face of endless antagonism.

Representative Sentence: “Perhaps I who have been immunized against being something fake no longer possess the capability of having the dream of a fish.”

Secret Rendezvous (1977)

The most video-game-brain-like of Abe’s novels, in Secret Rendezvous we find the narrator forced out into the world after an ambulance takes his wife away during the night. The reader is then led into a morphing puzzle box of landscapes in which there is no real solution other than to keep searching. There’s a talking horse that guides the narrator as he searches for his wife among bizarre sex experiments involving a notorious doctor and odd nurses bent to distract him from the novel’s central quest. Small clues chain the book to previous situations and terrains of Abe’s earlier novels, suggesting that it is only meant to go on and on like this, that all major plot elements are as lost and dead-ended as the minor ones that seem to keep obscuring where we’re going. Probably my second favorite of all of Abe’s stuff, and a wonderful trap for the puzzle brained or Twin Peaks-ian.


Representative Sentence: “Perhaps the reason the doctor had appeared so calm at the spaghetti house was that she had already been made impervious to the effects of time.”

The Ark Sakura (1977)

The older Abe gets the more loose and wild faced his novels seem to grow, and The Ark Sakura, published seven years after his previous, represents for me an odd gap in the more assured hand of his previous manifestations. Essentially about a questionably sane paranoiac who builds a ship for those he selects to survive a nuclear fallout, the novel seems more consumed with dialogue and is a full-borne playout of one big bizarre premise, as opposed to the intricate labyrinths of his previous works. The most odd elements here are often tucked away inside exposition. For example, the narrator mentions in passing having been accused of rape but never brings it up again, creating a creepy wormhole in the book that gives the character a much more suggestively menacing air than if that accusation had been explored. Still, overall, The Ark Sakura isn’t much to get blown up about—it wanders along in the shell of what had come before it like a vessel waiting for the remainder to collapse.

Representative Sentence: “Once, I forget when, I saw a contest on TV between a chimpanzee and a person, to see which was better at threading needles. Which do you think won?”

Kangaroo Notebook (1991)

Honestly, my man seems a little senile by now. This book is by far his most watery and cartoonish, but we can cut him some slack because he died two years later. At last our strange protagonist, who seems to be the same man dragged through all the previous books, is found on his deathbed, which is pushed into an underground river in what is no small allusion to the final voyage of death. Herein we find the most absurd of Abe’s conditions, such as how the narrator is growing radish sprouts on his legs, which he then eats, and though it doesn’t quite work beyond the texture of a cartoon, it does seem fitting in the sense of someone drowning in the last days of a maze as simultaneously mesmerizing and disorienting as Abe’s language worlds cobbled together. Better to go out wild and babbling than falling into mirage.

Representative Sentence: “I had no desire to be swept along on a urine flood.”

Previously by Blake Butler - Social Work in the Tenderloin Will Kill Something Inside of You