Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Box Man (book) by Kobo Abe

The Box Man was one of my library checkouts. It was originally published in Japan in 1973. The English translation was published in 1974.

I'm not sure what to call this. Surrealist fiction? It's very much not the sort of thing I usually read.


How do you write a synopsis for something like this? Not much actually happens, and it's unclear whether any events that happen are real or just figments of the narrator's imagination. The same goes for the characters.

Here are the characters as I understand them. Some (or all?) of these characters may be the same person.
  • The Box Man, a man who has chosen, for the past few years, to live with a box over his head. The box reaches just to his hips. I don't think he ever leaves it. The average person might call him a homeless man, but he sees himself as different from other homeless people, because of the box he has chosen to live inside. He used to be a photographer, before he became a box man.
  • A man who has shot a box man (the Box Man? or perhaps the shooter is the Box Man?) with an air rifle. He was offended by the box man's presence near his window, so offended that he shot at him in order to frighten him away. However, he may have unintentionally wounded him. Something about the experience prompted him to become a box man himself.
  • The doctor. He cares for the wounded Box Man, but then finds himself wishing to become a box man himself, to the point that he pretends to be one. He proposes to switch places with the Box Man and even offers the Box Man 50,000 yen to dispose of his box. To sweeten the deal, he also offers the use of the nurse's apprentice. It's unclear whether she cares what either man decides to do with her.
  • The nurse's apprentice. Her legs hold great allure for the Box Man. She was an art student who went to the doctor for an abortion. She couldn't afford the abortion, so she asked the doctor if she could work for him in order to pay him back. She and the doctor became lovers, which displeased the current nurse, who also happened to be the doctor's wife.
  • The nurse's true husband, who became a drug addict, and whose identity the doctor assumed.

My first reaction, after I finished this: What did I just read?

I like the books I read to make some sort of sense, even if it's only at the end that everything comes together. The Box Man felt like it was composed of pieces that would eventually form some kind of bizarre whole...except then they didn't. Or at least that's how I felt. This is the kind of book that reminds me why I so rarely venture outside of reading genre fiction.

It started off promisingly enough. The Box Man begins by writing, in excruciating detail, how one constructs a box man's box, and what it's like to start living in one. He describes the experiences of the man who shot the box man, why he began writing his notes, and the offer he received for his box, via the nurse's apprentice. It was all very strange stuff – just strange enough to carry me along, not so strange as to push me away. The book was ever-so-slightly unpleasant to read, and yet I couldn't not read it, propelled by a need to know where Abe was going with all of this.

At some point, I realized that I couldn't be sure what was real and what wasn't. A snippet of conversation between the doctor and the nurse's apprentice indicated that at least some of what the Box Man was experiencing was, in fact, in his head. The Box Man maybe realized this as well, leading to a convoluted shift in his conversation with the doctor, in which they discussed the reality of their current situation. Was the Box Man really there, having that conversation with the doctor, or was he in his box, writing about the meeting with the doctor that he would have in the near future as though it were his present? Or was the Box Man the creation of some third person, who was writing about the Box Man writing about his conversation with the doctor and the nurse's apprentice?

Things got even more bizarre from that point on. There may have been a murder, maybe two murders. The nurse's apprentice might have become a captive, willing or unwilling, or maybe that was all just in the Box Man's head. If I had to say what this book ended up being about, the best I could come up with would be: identity, lust, voyeurism, and an intense desire to see but not be seen.

The Box Man, whoever he was, may have started down the road to becoming a box man after a humiliating, yet sexually exciting, experience involving his first attempt at voyeurism when he was a boy. My theory is that most of what happened in the book was the hallucinations of the Box Man as he bled to death after being shot. The doctor, the nurse's apprentice, and all associated characters were figments of the Box Man's imagination, maybe fragments of his own experiences and feelings. That would, I think, explain some of the more bizarre aspects of the doctor's story, as well as the strange impression I got that the nurse's apprentice wasn't actually a human being, but rather just a collection of attractive body parts.

While I found this to be a compelling book, it wasn't an enjoyable one. I really wish the ending had been even just a little less ambiguous – I was left feeling like Abe had taken the easy way out. There are plenty of stories that are strange and unsettling, and yet don't leave the reader adrift at the end. I don't consider The Box Man to be one of those stories.

  • The Unconsoled (book) by Kazuo Ishiguro - The only other surrealist fiction I can recall reading, and I didn't even manage to finish it. Its bizarre feel and strange, twisty reality is similar to The Box Man, but it's a longer work, with some truly massive paragraphs. If you think you can put up with that, I'd say give this a try. I have written about what little I managed to finish before I abandoned the book.
  • The Castle (book) by Franz Kafka - Kobo Abe's Wikipedia article lists Kafka as one of the authors he is often compared to. I've seen The Castle called a difficult work, perhaps not the best work for a Kafka newbie to start with, so I don't know if it would make the best read-alike. It's also unfinished. Maybe a collection of Kafka's shorter works would be better?
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (book) by Haruki Murakami - I haven't read this, but, judging by some of the reviews I read, it seems like this might be a good one for those who'd like another strange work. The bit of interest to me: one review I read indicated that the book's bizarre happenings get an actual explanation. Nifty.


  1. Any idea why the library bought this book?

    1. It was purchased around the same time the book was published, no faculty member name listed in the book. I wonder if Abe was making waves in the literary world at the time, and that's how it got on our radar?