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The Scientifically Surreal, Eerily Erotic Novels of Kobo Abe

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Kobo Abe’s misshapen world accommodates the corny tropes of thriller, adventure and detective fiction. It accommodates lengthy philosophical ruminations on identity, self-image and the loss or fragmentation thereof. It accommodates an impotent hospital director who grafts the severed lower half of a well-endowed underling to his own back in order to transform himself into a sexually superpowered centaur and thus better pleasure a blob-like thirteen-year-old girl bedridden by her slowly dissolving bones.

Already, the mind reels. If Abe’s body of work has room for an image like that, where exactly are its boundaries? If you’re unfamiliar with the man’s books, I’d forgive you for imagining the heaving epics of an undisciplined maximalist, novels where ridiculousness piles upon grotesquerie until both text and reader collapse. What’s more, Abe would seem to replace the relative asexuality of those books with grim, elaborate perversion. But Abe’s are relatively slim, aesthetically spare volumes, untainted by baroque language and puerile impulses toward fantasy. His novels, at least the eight currently available in English translation, mix a pinch of weirdness into a grayish medium of the mundane, the concrete and the scientific. But Abe’s flavor of weirdness, which nobody has yet replicated, is pungent indeed.

2. The Nature of This Weirdness
Recalling the time he read Abe’s The Box Man, young lit figure Tao Lin writes: “I think after 80 pages the book becomes some kind of ‘meta’ thing that focuses on ‘sexual fetishes’/’narrative reliability issues.'” Of a set of Abe novels that includes Secret Rendezvous, the province of that boneless girl-loving horse-man, David Auerbach writes: “They don’t seem like successes, and it’s not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don’t appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don’t have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness.”

I’m no academic, but my approximation of an academic definition of the Abean sensibility would be “the realistic, rational observation of banal settings and banal personalities gradually drained of logic and thus dissolved into absurd decadence.” The Typical Abe Protagonist (TAP), perhaps a shoe salesman or a schoolteacher, gets swept up, by little fault of his own, into potentially alarming circumstances. Maybe he’s importuned to find an unusual missing person; maybe he misses the last bus home; maybe leaves begin growing from his flesh. Unflustered, and indeed unflusterable, he calmly formulates hypotheses meant to solve his problem.

As the TAP methodically tests, rejects and reforumulates these hypotheses, the problem worsens, grows less comprehensible and forks off into a bouquet of new obstacles. By the end, he’s made peace with his situation, become too psychologically fragmented and untethered to respond, found himself in a world that’s lost its own bearings or experienced some combination thereof. This crude boiling-down admits exceptions — some specific Abe protagonists get themselves into trouble, for instance, or fail to take the obvious action to circumvent the whole mess — but its broad strokes align with the actual work.

I can’t overstate the Scientific Method rigidity of the TAP’s thought process. Whether laconic hired investigator, obese survivalist or the cardboard-clad bum, Abe’s narrators all possess a quasi-Aspergian attention to detail and unshakable faith in causality. Yet the mechanisms of causation in Abe’s world don’t merit the kind of trust we’ve given those in ours, though the TAP offers it, generously. “Even in the world of the absurd,” David Keffer writes in his study of Abe, “the scientist persists. He attempts to make sense of his surroundings using logic and scientific reasoning. Of course, it is hopeless to think that the irrational can be described in terms of the rational, but this thought never dawns on the protagonist.”

3. The Extent to Which Kobo Abe’s Tone is “Wooden”
Keffer points out a “heaviness intrinsic to Abe’s work” which “takes the form of detailed and laborious description of the psychological mechanisms by which a brain, properly trained, perceives and reacts to the world.” As Proust steps us through all the subjective details of recalling the memories evoked by that cookie, the TAP steps us through the subjective details of every major decision and observation he makes — and a lot of the minor ones, too. The effect is at once deeply familiar and pretty damned alien.

Part of this could have to do with translation, conceived as all of Abe’s novels were in Japanese. As such, they’re almost entirely devoid of U.S.-style irony — one of the few Western innovations Japan, blessedly, never got around to replicating — and possess the simultaneous economy of words and slight excess of formality you hit in other translated texts of all well-known 20th-century Japanese novelists except maybe Kenzaburo Oe.

Whether this commonality of voice comes from the mechanics of Japanese-to-English translation, the customs of Japanese fiction or the Japanese language itself I’m not equipped to determine. What I can tell is that, when you express the equanimous, analytical mindset of the TAP through such distanced language, what you get is aesthetically polarizing, writing that either compels you in a way you can’t pin down or stokes discomfort somewhere deep in your viscera. Abe’s detractors mutter “Something’s very wrong here — but what?” Abe’s fans mutter “Something’s very right here — but what?”

4. Relatively Sane Works
“You ever see that movie Woman in the Dunes?” asks Kenny Shopsin, the intense, foul-mouthed New York restaurateur in Matt Mahurin’s I Like Killing Flies, the documentary that profiles him. He compares his own days, spent filling customers’ orders that only pile up again, and the “hero” of the film’s, spent shoveling sand that only piles up again. Abe’s stories tend to provoke a great deal of talk about symbol, allegory, metaphor and suchlike, about which more later. This particular story has reached surprisingly far and wide, more so than anything else in his bibliography.

If someone knows the name Kobo Abe, chances are they know Woman in the Dunes, published in Japanese in 1962 and English in 1964. Much of this surely owes to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film adaptation, the vehicle by which it made its way to Mr. Shopsin. Identification must also play a role: so many of its readers and viewers seem awfully quick to point out the resemblances between themselves and the hapless insect enthusiast who travels to a remote seaside village only to find himself imprisoned in a shack at the bottom of a pit, doomed to perpetually remove the ever-falling-in sand at the behest of the widow who lives there. Comparisons to modern work, marriage, etc. hang low, but the particularities — the joint on a beetle’s leg, the sadistic villagers’ ragged edges, the omnipresent sand grains themselves — hinder generalization by being drawn so closely and so objectively.

Following two years on in the English as well as the Japanese, The Face of Another presents three notebooks — scribbling in notebooks being a very, very common pursuit among Abe narrators — of a scientist who, badly disfigured by a liquid oxygen explosion, labors over an advanced mask he believes will grant him reintroduction into society. The broader goal narrows to the specific one of using his newly unfamiliar appearance to seduce his own wife. The majority of the text comprises the scientist’s thoughts, which he thinks hard and often, about his disconnect with humanity, the function of faces themselves, and what happens to identity when you alter the surface. He’s not nuts, exactly; just kind of obsessive and pedantic, but you get the feeling that the intersection of his training, situation and inclinations may actually warrant it.

On Japanese shelves three years before Woman in the Dunes but held until 1970 elsewhere, Inter Ice Age 4 is as close to the mainstream as the English-translated Abe gets. Ostensibly a science fiction novel about the consequences of future-prediction machines — the wider the knowledge of a prediction, the more the actual future deviates from the prediction, and thus the greater the necessity for an additional prediction, and then another, and another — it feels much more Abe-like upon introducing an emotionless race of biologically engineered aquatic human children, gills and all. As something less than a fan of sci-fi, I consider this Abean take on its clichés somewhat “above” the genre. Considered only within the Abe oeuvre, it’s hard to say whether it’s underappreciated or just minor.

5. Less Sane Works
At first, 1967-in-Japanese and 1969-in-English’s The Ruined Map seems, like Inter Ice Age 4, to be a genre exercise. It’s told by a loner private eye in search of a distraught, hard-drinking dame’s missing husband, and though a host of noir icons surface, it soon becomes evident that the novel will swerve, and hard, out of the well-worn grooves of detective fiction. His clues, a coffee shop’s matchbook and the title’s incomprehensible map, prove fabulously unhelpful. Only by coming assuming the vanished man’s identity does he get on what may or may be the right track, leading straight through his grimy urban Japan into the core of a menacing sex ring. But by that point, he’s well into the process of forgetting who he is or is supposed to be, let alone who he’s after. Here we have two variables that, through Abe’s novels, tend to rise inexorably and together: bizarre eroticism and the dissolution of identity.

Though Abe is rarely topical, it makes sense that he’d seize the 1980s aftershock of Cold War panic and/or apocalyptic resignation to throw a TAP into the culture of fallout shelters, stockpiling and the post-nuclear winter Earth. The Ark Sakura’s slovenly, illegitimately born central character, who goes by the equally undesirable nicknames “Pig” or “Mole” but prefers the latter, has converted an abandoned quarry into a well-supplied “ark” meant to ferry its inhabitants safely through mutually assured destruction. Lacking friends or family — he compares himself to the eupcaccia, a fictional self-contained bug that feeds on its own feces — he simply recruits a local merchant and a couple of his shills.

Predictably, a power struggle develops, sublimated for one hilariously extended period into a tacit competition between the men over who can most powerfully slap the female shill’s rump. By the book’s final sentence, it’s clear — as clear as Abe’s endings get — that Pig/Mole has released his grip on reality or else never had it in the first place, but this is less the story of psychological and plain old logical breakdown than that of a high-minded mandate’s bloat into farce. The later scenes of the book get Pig/Mole’s leg stuck in his futuristic toilet, seemingly inextricably, as his “crew” looks on and debates just flushing him down.

6. Insane works
I don’t how what happened in the 1970s, but something made it the decade when Abe would write a trio of novels eccentric by even his own standards. The Box Man, published in Japanese in 1973 and English the next year, presents itself as the notebooks, natch, of a man who withdraws from proper society to live in a cardboard box, thus joining the ranks of the “box men.” These aren’t garden variety winos huddled inside refrigerator boxes for nighttime warmth but enterprising voluntary recluses who trick out their cardboard shells, which they remain inside at all times, with stabilization devices, equipment racks and viewing windows.

What begins as a detailed how-to on the construction of an ideal box’s man home and a treatise on the unique challenges and advantages box manhood subtly transforms into a disorienting narrative kaleidoscope. There might not just be one box man narrating; maybe there are a bunch. And maybe one of them is you, the reader. Whoever’s doing the writing, they have strongly held, difficult-to-understand ideas about what exactly constitutes the identity of a “real” box man and what constitutes the identity of a “fake” one, and how either identity is gained, lost, stolen or bought.

Like The Ruined Map, Secret Rendezvous, out in Japanese in 1977 and English in 1979, launches into a hunt for a missing spouse that, starting out futile and growing ever more so, quickly falls into irrelevance. Over the course of (what else but) several notebooks, the narrator documents his quest for his disappeared wife, snagged in the wee hours by a seemingly legitimate ambulance — except, in perfect health, she hadn’t called for one. Abe is frequently compared to Kafka, and this book is Exhibit A: scouring the vast, awkwardly-constructed hospital where his wife was supposedly deposited, he’s enervated by layers of meaningless regulation and thousands of hours of excessive surveillance material to sift through. Abe being Abe, the machinations of a clandestine sex-tape racket run out of the complex’s hidden wings and there is a climactic, as it were, electronically-assisted orgasm contest for which I lack the word count to do justice.

Also written in the 1970s but unpublished until the 1990s, Kangaroo Notebook, Abe’s final complete novel, is his most thoroughgoingly surreal. The son of a doctor and a trained physician himself — though he only graduated med school by promising not to practice — Abe never wrote a character who didn’t regret his decision to see a health care worker of any kind, for any reason. This was never more the case than with this novel’s everyman, who, understandably, seeks medical attention for a patch of radishes found sprouting from his shins. Catheterized and IV’d up at the hospital, the poor fellow wakes up strapped into an animate gurney that propels him through a series of increasingly frightful settings, none connected in any obvious way to the last. He wends his way through locales including but by no means limited to an unsettling sulfur spring, an anxiety-producing department store, and a cabbage patch inhabited only by his mother’s ghost.

As a last work, it’s a fitting distillation of the themes that have gone before: there’s a little of The Ruined Map’s urban anomie, a little of Woman in the Dunes’ utter futility, a little of The Box Man’s “narrative reliability issues” (as Lin put it) and a little of all the other books’ deep suspicion of doctors and fixation on the loss of identity. Plus, he cranks the absurdity past eleven. Video game designer Hideo Kojima calls Kangaroo Notebook the prime inspiration for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Hmm.

7. What Genre Does Kobo Abe Fit Into, Anyway?
Abe’s some kind of hybrid between magic realist, existentialist and surrealist. That’s a lot of -ists to digest in one sentence, so perhaps it’s better put that he drops his characters into nightmarish, often bureaucratic scenarios which often diverge from the general nature of reality are are populated by secondary players who accept and even embrace the non sequiturs and logically-premised illogical conclusions that surround them.

This sounds insufferable, but Abe practically always redeems it. He transcends the realm of incoherent nonsense with the very literal, systematic affect mentioned above. The TAP describes the otherwise inexplicable stuff found in Abe’s stories in language that defines cool precision. No matter how crazy his situation, the TAP soldiers on, observing and inferring as if in laboratory conditions. More mainstream magic realism lays a similar claim: a character goes about his humdrum life in humdrum terms, but along comes a specter, faerie or supernatural phenomenon — invoked in terms just as realistic as those describing the lampposts and mailboxes lining the street. Abe takes the realism about as far as it can tolerably go, seemingly operating by the formula that every instance of the absurd, the surreal or the fantastical must be balanced by an equal amount of surrounding mundanity.

8. How This Goes on to Save Abe’s Novels from the Mire of Straight-Ahead Metaphor and/or Allegory

As tricky and exotic as this might sound, it’s a variation on the same basic skill employed by, say, Stephen King, whose “ensouled appliances run darkly amok,” as David Foster Wallace once put it, “in a world of Fritos, flatulence and trailer-park angst.” But King’s fabrications, no matter how grotesque or preposterous, unfailingly adhere to well-defined, if simple, internal logic. Abe’s creations apparently know no such discipline, but his narrators nevertheless treat them as if they do. What’s surprising is how easy it is to go along with the gag. Reviewing The Ark Sakura, Edmund White called it “a wildly improbable fable when recalled” which nevertheless “proceeds with fiendishly detailed verisimilitude when experienced from within.”

While not what you’d necessarily call believable, Abe’s novels nevertheless deliver the kind of reality that bypasses your judgment on that level and simply forces you to process it as-is. Described as wholes, or even described in a piece like this, they sound ludicrous, like narrative stunts — maybe even like wastes of the discerning reader’s time. Some enthusiasts like to read them metaphorically or allegorically, but I’d argue that’s a far less interesting interpretation than simply taking them straight on.

To read the works of Kobo Abe as either accretions of metaphors or of random incidents shouldn’t, in my humble opinion, be possible. The amount and type of description Abe always made sure to include would seem to head that off. It’s no more sensible to see in these books an archetypal drunk with an absent husband, an archetypal scarred scientist or an archetypal fallout shelter-dweller than it is to draw from them statements about the tenuousness of the individual’s connection to the whole, about the dangers of medical professionals or about life’s ultimate fruitlessness. These are the sort of books that are about their own particularities — or, in Abe’s specific case, about his own peculiarities.

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