"I personally feel that a box, far from being a dead end, is an entrance into another world."

The Box Man, by Kobo Abe

Translated by E. Dale Saunders.
Vintage, Fiction.

"The Box Man" is an existential work, revealing questions about identity and the place of man in society. The story begins in a diary format that reads like a how-to manual, as the narrator details the tools necessary to build a boxlike outfit complete with an observation slit for vision.

Once suited up, the Box Man wears his costume at all times, even within his own home. The initial question many have is "Why?" and so the Box Man gives an example of the mysterious case of A, a man driven to shoot a Box Man who once camped outside his house — and then became one himself. As the box costume changes hands, so does the narrator, which leaves the reader in doubt towards the narrative voice throughout the novel.

The use of character is fluid, yet Abe presents the idea of a uniform viewpoint of life seen from the eyes of a box man: "Looking out from the box, he sees through the lies and secret intentions concealed behind the scenery."

If you love conceptual novels with a proto David-Lynchian mixture of conventional story telling with pure weirdness, than you'll love this. But if you prefer well plotted novels with in-depth characters then stay away. I found the novel didn't quite live up to the concept, but the concept itself was so ridiculous, amusing and memorable that it's worth the time spent wrapping your head around.

Each week "Essentials" introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.