Saturday, June 4, 2011

Currently Reading: Kobo Abe's The Face of Another

Since being introduced to the works of Kobo Abe thanks to one of Harlan Ellison's rants on Sci-Fi Buzz back in the nineties, I have sought out whatever I could from this author. Abe has amazed me with his ability to take an outlandish topic and make me believe in it (outcasts walking the streets beneath cardboard boxes, within which they carry all their possessions, or a woman suffering from a disease that turns her bones to cotton). Abe's brilliance is his ability to so engross one with his characters and his world that it doesn't matter how crazy and unreal things get. This is something I have found in the books of his I have read so far:

The Box Man
The Woman in the Dunes

Secret Rendezvous

The Ark Sakura
Inter Ice Age 4

So, it was with great anticipation that I began The Face of Another. This was a book I'd been looking forward to reading for some time. I had actually begun it once before, but for some reason set it aside.

The plot of this novel is that a scientist, who was severely injured in a lab accident, now finds himself separated from society due to his extreme scarring of his face. So, he decides to create a mask that will be so lifelike nobody will be able to notice the difference, which will allow him to re-integrate into society.

But he does not wish to let anyone, colleagues, friends, or his wife, know what he is doing. He is fearful of the efficacy of the mask, but, more important, he is becoming more and more distrustful of those around him - disgusted by the way in which he so easily has been shunted aside due to nothing more than a surface feature.

He comes to believe his wife is remaining with him out of pity, and he wishes to prove this by using the mask to seduce her. It is an elaborate plan, and we get to see the entirety of the character's descent into paranoia, as well as the construction of the mask and the manner in which the mask's "persona" rises to circumvent the man's true personality. It's an interesting premise, but one that does not work for me in its execution, which I found surprising, having enjoyed everything else I'd read of Abe's.

I think the problem, for me, stems from the structure of the book. It is set up as a confessional for the protagonist's wife, set out from his point of view in three notebooks at the apartment he rented as the "mask." He lays out what he did and why he did it and how he felt when he was able to easily seduce his wife with the mask.

It is all from the first-person point of view and, despite many interesting philosophical arguments, I found it difficult to become immersed within this world as I had done with Abe's earlier works (at least those works I had read earlier). I think this first person POV distances the audience too much and does not allow us to sympathize with this character who is full of self-pity and anger.


That said, the final twist was brilliantly done and allowed me to end the book on a high note. Basically, the protagonist had set up this rendezvous in the apartment the "mask" had rented and set out the three notebooks for his wife to find and read. Then he waited at home for her return. But, as night fell and she did not come home, the protagonist became agitated and went to the apartment to see if she was finished reading.

What he finds there is a note from her relating how disappointed and insulted she is with the fact that he believed she allowed herself to be seduced by another man (the mask). She knew all along that it was him and played along, believing this anonymous mask was allowing him to re-integrate himself into their marriage. She was trying to help him. But, having been accused of adultery as a result of his own deceptions, she has left.

There is a slight epilogue after the letter, and it is an ambiguous ending that allows the reader to choose what happens next that is also much appreciated and allows the story to linger on after closing the book. But, overall, I found it tough to make it through this novel, and the brilliance of the final pages does not make up for the rest of the novel, despite the fact that I see little way in which he could have structured it any differently in order to get that final piece of the puzzle.

Sometimes, I guess, good ideas just don't work for some people. But now I'm anxious to see how Hiroshi Teshigahara brought this book to life as a film. It should be interesting.


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