Kobo Abe - Box Man (1973)

Review published 8/20/2021
The Box ManThe Box Man by Kōbō Abe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reads a bit more like a loose collection of abstract short stories, play excerpts, story note snippets and essays. Seems to be some sense of ideas around seeing/being seen, an audience seeing the author (I'm reminded of livestreaming, Twitch, OnlyFans, YouTube vlogs, game developers streaming the menial day-to-day coding of a game developer's job, food-eating streams, Chinese reality idol shows...) Nowadays life seems to have accentuated to an extreme of large swathes of viewers viewing small, focused points of entertainers... the Box Man at times is someone who can "see everything" but "cannot be seen". Reminds me of an audience member in a livestream... or a follower on Social Media.

That being said, even though I like a lot of Abe's work I don't feel like Box Man really comes together. It feels like a bunch of notes and miscellany that were polished and assembled into something resembling a novel, but really at times it reminded me of his more obtuse philosophical essays. Sometimes the book even goes into abstract dialogues about how the plot isn't going anywhere, or taking into question who characters are, thinking about characters in relation to their authors

Still, because it's so vague it's at times an interesting free-associative landscape. The "Box" of the "Box Man" can be so many things - at first I was thinking about emotionally-calcified salarymen, hiding anything resembling from their true self via a barrier of suit-and-tie uniform, overwork and drinking... evolving into the angry-looking old man with his mask pulled down on the train.

I enjoyed the passage about news in the chapter "In which it is a question of the sullen relationship..." again, it feels like a description of the 1970s news, but against today's landscape things have become frighteningly accentuated (In particular I think about all the people, myself included at times, scrambling to stay on top of the cyclic discourse of indie videogames, or Anglophone Twitter scrambling to talk about some latest huge political issue only to forget about it a week later...)

Further in that chapter is some talk of the pillory, where someone is exposed and seen by all. The book compares it to theatre actors being seen, 'being seen' as being worse than being the viewer, and thus, why someone whose job it is to be seen (newscaster, actor), is usually paid. Nowadays many scramble to be seen (TikTok, YouTube, Twitch), or apps scramble to see us (Snapchat always starting in selfie mode.) But there's little compensation most of the time...

Which makes me think about being a tiny figure on the internet - be seen too much and you start to understand the value of privacy and establishing boundaries. Viewers may at times overreach into parasocial (one-sided, like an avid follower of a 1-million-follower celebrity) relationships, trying to theorize themselves or reach into the private garden of an entertainer.

But vast swathes of this just feel too floaty and deattached for me. I would say there's a lot of room for interpretation, but as far as Abe novels go this is a fairly tricky one to reason about. I get the sense I'm missing context, I know Abe wrote lots of plays around 1973, but nowadays without that context a lot of it feels like ???.

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