Wednesday, 12 August 2009

No human grace

Kobo Abe makes me feel claustrophobic. One of the masters of the 20th century existentialist novel, Abe tells stories of protagonists whose internal alienation from the rest of the world invariably takes on horrifying correspondence in the material world.

The Face of Another tells the story of an un-named chemical scientist who loses his face in a horrific lab accident, but the story's not about the accident per se, for that occurs before the action of the novel begins. Rather, The Face of Another is about the narrator's realization of the metaphysical implications of this loss - nothing less than the simultaneous loss of his connection with other human beings:
The face, in the final analysis, is the expression. The something like an equation by which we show our relationship with others. It's a roadway between oneself and others. If it's blocked by a landslide, even those who have been at pains to travel it will think you are now some uninhabited, dilapidated house and perhaps pass by. (pp. 27-28)
But in fact, it's more than a simple absence of all external evidence of a soul, this lack of a face. It's revolting and terrifying in the most basic, screw with your lower brain stem kind of way. While reading this book, I kept recalling that scene in Pullman's The Golden Compass when Lyra finds Tony (I think) after he's been cut from Ratter, his daemon - she was overwhelmed with horror at him, as I remember, because looking at a person without a daemon was, to her, like looking at someone without a face. I recall trying to imagine what that would mean on a really visceral level and I don't think I was really able to.

The narrator of Abe's novel has to deal with such pity, revulsion, and confusion constantly but none causes him real pain except when it comes from his wife. She is impersonally kind and patient and gentle with him but their connection goes no deeper. And so, to try to rebuild the roadway between himself and the world, but primarily between himself and his wife, he begins creating himself a mask. And because he is a scientist and has access to all kinds of crazy things, he succeeds in building one that's so effective as to be undetectable.

Problem solved? Oh no, now the existential hell begins and the narrator engages in a long (sometimes too long and somewhat repetitive, but also sometimes entirely engaging) meditation on what it means to try to connect with others while wearing a false face, as well as to identity yourself as both distinct from and tied to such a false face.

Reading this novel I was, by turns, tense, terrified, utterly absorbed, bored, confused, and irritated, not to mention feeling trapped in the brain of just one point of view - much like the narrator. In this regard, The Face of Another was successful - the narrator's prison becomes the reader's prison - but for this reason it wasn't always enjoyable. My ability to suspend disbelief while reading is pretty well honed and so there were times at which I felt almost desperate to get out of this internal labyrinth. (I had a similar experience with the last Abe novel I read as well, The Woman in the Dunes; The Ark Sakura I remember being less stressful and more enjoyable, but I'm not sure others would feel the same.)

Feeling overwhelmed at times by the narrator's long contemplation of what faces mean and what he means in a social world, both without a face and while wearing his mask, I found myself rushing at points. At other points, I would linger over great passages which, to me, really got at something essential about how we interact with one another. His wife, having read his journals as he manipulated her into doing, drops this (to him) quite unexpected bombshell: strips the mask from each of us, and we must endeavor for those we love to put the mask on so that it can be taken off again. For if there is no mask to start with, there is no pleasure in removing it, is there? (p. 223)
For him, the only way the mask could function as a restored corridor between himself and his wife was via deception (which I won't reveal the specifics of in case you read this) while for her, this was a complete misunderstanding of what it means to communicate with others. For her, the mask is useful only if it's known to be a mask, so that it may be stripped away to reveal something else.

All in all, I think this is quite a good book. I don't think it's for everyone; it's certainly not for readers who require Happenings, because this book is decidedly bankrupt in that area. But for the philosophically minded, it's a good 'un, I think.


Bellezza said...

Colleen, you have written such a profound review I hardly know how to respond to it wisely enough. The whole idea of losing my face (identity in many ways?) is horrific to myself, and this review of yours poses so many connections: How do we connect to one another? How important is our physical image to being received? What if we all wear a mask of our own creation anyway? Such thought provoking ideas!

On a totally trivial note, I remember when I worked in a fancy department store and first started wearing red lipstick as part of my daily make up. I was so well received by the men customers, treated totally differently. I remember thinking, "It's just the superficial outside of me. I'm still the same person." But, to many, appearance does seem to matter.

I loved your review.

mel said...

I will ad this book to my growing Japanese novel TBR list-thanks for the very good review.

verbivore said...

Abe is fantastic, in a frustrating way. His narratives are exactly that, claustrophobic, you've hit the perfect term for it. I've read parts of this one in Japanese for a class once, but I've never sat down with the whole novel. That was clearly a mistake.

Colleen said...

Bellezza: Ah, thanks. You're making me blush.

Abe actually discussed the difference between make-up and masks in this novel so you may want to check it out...

mel: Enh! Too much responsibility!

verbivore: Cool, you can read Japanese! I'm starting a Japanese language class in the fall but I don't think we'll be learning any reading skills until January, if I take the second part of the course.