The Box-Man Numbeth

The Box Man by Kobo Abe translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders Alfred A. Knopf, 178 pp., $6.95

WHEN A NEW Japanese product comes onto the American market, its skillful design, its inexpensiveness, and its dubious durability are matched only by its clever advertising. Frank Gibney, the author of a forthcoming book, Japan, The Fragile Superpower, wrote recently that "the Japanese continue to maintain that a good Japanese can outsell Americans, outplan Frenchmen and Germans, and even 'handle' the Chinese." But the time for a philosophy of Mom, apple pie, and the transistor radio next door is gone. Japan is suffering from foreign economic pressures and its future is bleak, even on the everconsuming American market.

If writers are part of the market system, then in terms of raw statistics Japan's writers have kept abreast of its industries. 30,000 books were published in Japan in 1973, most of them fiction. 90 million people read Japan's 1400 monthly magazines, and the 1973 daily newspaper circulation was 55 million, just under the comparable U.S. figure, even though the tiny island-nation has only half the population. Despite their weighty numerical achievements Japan's writers have not maintained a favorable balance of trade: while about 1000 foreign books were translated into Japanese in 1973, less than fifty Japanese books were translated into English. Commenting on this state of affairs, Gibney writes, "Unlike the outgoing cultural explorer of the Meiji Era, the modern Japanese is like a man living in a house with one-way windows, quite clear from within, but opaque to the outside viewer."

What do "those clever Japanese" industrialists and Japanese writers' numbers games have to do with Kobo Abe? Everything (and of course, on the edge of the technological abyss, nothing). Abe is a Nikon camera incarnate, and his transistorized prose--a mixture of journalese and clinical report--combines some of the worst elements of the simple Hesse, the technical Barth, the mundane Beckett, and the grotesque-for-the-sake-of-grotesqueness Barthelme. He is as throughly modern as Japan's prodigal-car, the high on fuel consumption and low on credit.

If Norman Mailer was the first journalist/novelist, Abe is the first photonovelist (he has graced The Box Man with nine of his own photos), equipped wherever he goes with a periscope-like camera and tape recorder. And, while he is one of the select few to be translated into English, Abe the technocrat and his box man narrator--both hopelessly intertwined--are the epitome of the man in the house with one-way windows. Abe's cold, logical precision is the summation of all the statistics that point toward Japan's industrial and cultural decline.

THERE IS NO coherent plot to Box Man, although there appears to be an extremely complicated code beneath its surface that, like DNA, offers endless possibilities and possible endlessness. The novel begins with several pages on how to construct and live in a box, and then shifts to the narrator, who is scribbling his story on the inside of his box. Because we are all locked in our own boxes, this annoyingly anonymous fellow asserts, we are left to our imaginations, and they become just as valuable as the so-called real world we see around us. They are perhaps even more valuable in Abe's urban environment because it, too, is a product of our imaginations, and a particularly grim one at that. But, while it is important to understand these basic concepts, they do not become apparent immediately. They are hidden within an intrigue involving the box man's tentative release from his lonely enclosure, a release finally procured by a woman's love, which ultimately becomes yet another box. Within this wider story Abe presents case-studies showing that violence creates its own box, that the suicidal impulse, the frenzied quest for total release from one's box only creates an eternal box, and even that the voyeuristic act of peering from one's box at others must result in a greater recognition of their perverse awareness of you.

Speaking of his trilogy of novels, The Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another, and The Ruined Map, Abe once said that they were "tied together by their concern with the city. You see, the city is the place where people first had to deal with the stranger who is not an enemy." And in a way, the box man is a stranger to himself, not an enemy, but still unknown, puzzling out his own existence before even attempting to cope with others.

ABE'S THEME, in a word, is alienation. And because alienation has been cooked to a charred kernel, at least since Eliot's "unreal city" in The Wasteland, all that is left to do is pick it apart into ashes and let them scatter about in modernist prose, hoping that something new and different will happen. In Box Man every conceivable "new" technique is used--from describing the color of ink used in the marginalia, printed verbatim, to a fight between the box man and his fictitious alter-ego about who is the real narrator of the story.

One glimpse at the kind of muddling that goes into Abe's prose shows how much value he places in forcing the reader to unravel what should be simple statements:

In seeing there is love, in being seen there is abhorrence. One grins, trying to bear the pain of being seen. But not just anyone can be someone who only looks. If the one who is looked at looks back, then the person who was looking becomes the one who is looked at.

It all sounds like R.D. Laing's Knots, where after you've finished untieing them all, you're left with the same questions you started out with. There is no compassion, no attempt to understand, just glee in the recognition that the paradoxes of life can be stated in different ways, all very logical and all sharing one thing in common, paradox.

Abe has been compared with Laing in an interesting way; one of his great defenders in Japan said that "his attitude is similar to R.D. Laing's--that neurosis is not a disease, but a sign of intelligence being used." Perhaps, then, Abe has written an intelligent novel.