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Familiar Diversions

I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.

Currently reading

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The Box Man by Kobo Abe

The Box Man - Kōbō Abe, E. Dale Saunders

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.

 

(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)