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The Box Man by Kobo Abe
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The Box Man (edition 1995)

by Kobo Abe, E. Dale Saunders (Translator)

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5671517,547 (3.65)1 / 68
Member:JimElkins
Title:The Box Man
Authors:Kobo Abe
Other authors:E. Dale Saunders (Translator)
Info:North Point Press (1995), Paperback, 178 pages
Collections:Japanese
Rating:*****
Tags:None

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The Box Man by Kōbō Abe

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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
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.) ( )
  Familiar_Diversions | Sep 24, 2013 |
A strange, dry, inhuman book: just the kind of thing I like. "Box men" are homeless men who walk around inside cardboard boxes. The boxes are fitted out with viewing portholes, little shelves, hooks, and supplies. Three things make this book strange, and the last two also make it bitter, misogynistic, and misanthropic.

1. I read the book because it uses photographs, and I am trying to survey 20th century books that use illustrations in fictional settings. This book has one of the oddest uses of photography I've found. There are a half-dozen grainy black and white illustrations distributed through the text. Each one has a few lines of text underneath. At first it seems those captions are excerpted from the novel itself, but it turns out they aren't. Even at the end of the book, a reader isn't quite sure where those text excerpts are supposed to come from. Of the half-dozen photos, only the first one connects with the narrative: it shows a figure walking away into the darkness. It fits, sort of, with a central episode in the story. In general, we're supposed to think the photographs are made by the narrator, a box man and photographer; but they aren't described in the text. It's as if they come from a separate part of the narrator's life, and their accompanying texts come from a diary the narrator doesn't mention. And that lack of reference becomes itself increasingly odd.

2. The descriptions of the box are so vivid, so precise and unexpected, that it seems they could only be the result of actually building such a box and living in it. Abe is extremely precise about what goes into the box—what the box man carries around with him—and how such a box is constructed. I would expect that from any realist or surrealist novel; but those details are inserted into unexpected places in the narrative, where they would only occur to someone who has actually spent time in such a box. The stains on the inside of the box, the uses of a small shelf under the observation window, the uses of a plastic tablet—they outdo Nabokov in their myopic realism, and they produce, for me, a creeping sense that the novelist did more than just research his subject. I haven't looked into this, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were such things as "box men" in 1970s Japan, and if Abe wasn't one himself. That's a kind of narrative unreliability that goes well beyond what a reader might infer about the author of "In Cold Blood" or "Lolita."

3. Those first two points are quizzical and memorable. This last point is unpleasant. The story turns around a "box man," another person who may want to become a "box man," and a nurse they both like. The other man is explicitly a Doppelgaenger and projection of the narrator, so in terms of men's roles, the book is about the nakedness of walking around in public without a box, the temptations of the box's security, and the odd feeling of slipping out of society and living in, and as, a box. In terms of women's roles, the book is substantially more bleak. The nurse only exists in the story to take off her clothes and pose. She is watched by the "box man," once from outside a window, and later from inside a hospital room. The narrator fantasizes about cutting her up and eating her, but that's just a passing thought. Mostly he is stricken with embarrassment about his own body, and the sum total of his idea of relations with women is watching them undress. It's an openly childish, openly masturbatory fantasy. Over the course of the book, the effect of that relentless, unreflective, supposedly natural way of representing relations is extremely unpleasant. If Abe had thought of this state of affairs ironically, or if he had tried to analyze it, or if he had presented it as a degeneration of normal relations, then it could have worked: but when he wrote this book, Abe's imaginative universe was so shriveled, so dried up and poisoned, that he could only imagine women as things that are peered at from inside cardboard boxes. I have no problem with violent, misanthropic, deranged or psychotic narratives or narrators: but this one is also unreflective, and therefore especially sour.

The narrative is quirky to the point of opacity, often uncontrolled, wandering, and shapeless. At one point the narrator admits he has made up the other "box man" entirely; several pages are devoted to a fantasy of turning into a fish and drowning; the narrative is often interrupted by notes about the color of the writer's ink or the nature of the paper he is writing on. I take all those shapeless experiments as strategies to keep writing, to get the bizarre story down on paper. I also take the entire novel as a purge: Abe has lived this way, somehow, and somehow he wants to get past it. A fascinating and very memorable book. ( )
  JimElkins | Jan 20, 2013 |
The idea of living in a box seems one step lower than the life of a beggar. In addition to being completely anonymous, a man in a box is also unseen. As the story opens, a city dweller feels annoyed by the presence outside of his apartment by a box man whose presence no one else wants to recognize. The apartment dweller takes careful aim with his air rifle and shoots the box man in a way so as not to permanently harm him but to make him move. The box man does move slowly, but not in an erect manner, away from the vicinity of the apartment dweller. Meanwhile, inside the box, the anonymous man is keeping a record of the man who shot him.

Abe does a bizarre psychological examination of the meaning of having no identity. He does this by having his anonymous man in a box that completely hides that person’s physical features. It matters not whether the box man is alone or in a crowd. The complexity of the character of an “unknown” person takes place completely within a box.

The story starts as a fascinating look into anonymity but eventually falls into kaleidoscopic plot which leaves readers stranded as to who is talking and what the author is trying to say or what the point of the book even is ( )
  SqueakyChu | Jul 25, 2012 |
This is almost certainly the most mystifying book I have ever read! At the start of it, the narrator (or one of them) describes what a box man is (a man who lives with a box over his head that reaches to his hips and that contains the various items he needs for daily life) and says: at this juncture, the box man is me. It gets less clear from there.

In the first part of the novel, the box man describes how to make a box, his life as a box man, how someone else (?) became a box man, being attacked with an air gun, and so on. I found this section even more claustrophobic than I found Abe's The Woman in the Dunes and was almost ready to give up. Then more characters enter the novel including a woman who acts as a nurse and a doctor who may be the person who shot him and may be a fake box man and may be a figment of the box man's imagination. The narrator box man believes, or dreams, or writes, or fantasizes that the nurse has made a deal with him to pay him for the box, but he wants to return the money she has given him. The scene switches to the hospital and its housing area where the doctor and nurse work and live -- either it really shifts or it shifts in the box man's imagination.

There the box man's feelings about sex and love start to emerge. He seems to want contact with the nurse, but mainly just to see her naked. He was formerly a photographer and the idea of seeing without being seen is threaded through the novel in various ways, from taking pictures, to living in a box, to turning out the light, to hiding and looking, and more.

Later we learn a little more about the history of the doctor and the nurse (and another doctor who the doctor is pretending to be and who became addicted to morphine, and who may or not be the same doctor, or even the box man himself), and then there is a box man corpse too. Although some of this is told in a more realistic tone, it is unclear who the narrator is. At the very end, there is a revelation about an event in the box man's childhood that may shed light on his sexual psychology and psychology in general. In fact, there is a lot about sex in the book, including the narrator box man's idea that the legs are the most erotic part of a woman because they enclose her sexual parts (and I note that the box of a box man stops at his hips, so just his legs are exposed). In addition, the book includes grainy dark photographs with captions that are seemingly unrelated to the story.

I've read other reviews of this book, but I still really don't know what to make of it. It is clear that Abe is commenting in some way on how we try to hide ourselves, how repression eventually expresses itself, how we avoid looking at some people and long to look at others. But what this all means, and how to sort out the confusion of characters, narrators, real box men, fake box men, and so on, and whether in fact this is all some sort of drug-induced dream, or all the male characters are aspects of one character, is beyond me.
2 vote rebeccanyc | Jun 6, 2012 |
SPOILERS (possibly not even accurate ones)

What a confounding read! I feel like I got the point of the novel-- the themes, the allegories, that was all clear. But the plot? I think I got it, but I'm not 100% convinced and I'm not even sure it matters. That said, I did like the book, but I would've enjoyed it more if I knew what was going on a little more. It seems purposefully confusing.

A box man is essentially a man who chooses to shut himself off from society as a self protection mechanism. He observes but is himself invisible. The Box Man in the story is one such person, but finds himself lured out by the temptation of love/sex. He struggles. Does he want to put himself out there and take the risk, expose himself? Ultimately he takes the risk. I believe he was happy with that decision even though he was rejected in the end. But he does choose to return to isolation.

I got very confused with the story of the doctor/addict and in the end wasn't sure if there were 2 or 3 male characters, and which was which in the real versus fake box man scene at the hospital.

This book is not for everyone. Very few in fact. But I did identify and commiserate with the Box Man. Would everyone, if the book was more accessible?

3.25 stars ( )
  technodiabla | May 18, 2012 |
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Sauders, E. DaleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375726519, Paperback)

The nature of identity itself is the ostensible subject of this bizarrely fascinating existential novel from the great Japanese fiction writer and dramatist Kobo Abe. In the story, a man decides to give up the self that he has been all his life to attain a state of blissful anonymity. He leaves his world behind and moves onto the streets of Tokyo. He puts a large box over his head, cuts a hole for his eyes. It is as strange as it sounds, but Abe's light touch and narrative innovation makes it compelling.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:26 -0400)

The author combines wildly imaginative fantasies and naturalistic prose to create narratives reminiscent of the work of Kafka and Beckett.

(summary from another edition)

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