Japanese Literature Challenge 16: The Face of Another, by Kobo Abe

The Face of Another, Kobo Abe, transl. E. Dale Saunders (1964)

This challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza, runs through the end of February, but I really wanted to read my entry by the end of January, and I’ve managed to slide just under the wire here with The Face of Another! It’s a very odd book, which I was at least expecting—Abe has been described as a precursor to Haruki Murakami in his surreal fictions—but even so, getting through it was a bit of an effort, and has left me wondering whether Abe is really an author for me.

I don’t believe it’s possible to “spoil the plot” of a book that has been publicly available for nearly sixty years, but be advised that this review makes details of the plot explicit, as the Penguin Classic introductions sometimes say. The basic plot is simple: an industrial chemist has a laboratory accident which leaves his face covered with what he calls “scar webs”, raised keloid burns that have completely disfigured him. His wife’s sexual rejection leads him to build a lifelike mask for himself, which he wears over his ruined face and which begins to develop what seems like a personality of its own. Allegedly led on by the mask, he plots to seduce his own wife, and succeeds in carrying on an anonymous affair with her for several months. The book we are reading is comprised of his three notebooks (black, white, and grey), in which he narrates his proceedings, complete with interjections and marginalia, plus the letter he writes to his wife as a final “reveal” of his true identity, and the letter his wife writes back.

There are moments in which The Face of Another is extremely successful: when our unnamed narrator discusses how his “roadway” or “path” to other people—his ability to make meaningful human connections—has been damaged by the damage done to his face, for example, it is poignant and affecting. The late appearance of a woman, a character in a film the narrator watches, who is a hibakusha—a burned survivor of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—speaks to the complexity and the cruelty of human aesthetic ideals, and her retention of a quiet dignity in the face of street harassment suggests a way of living with disability that our narrator can’t grasp. (I suppose, in some ways, you could argue the toss on whether this is a novel about disability or not. I very much read it that way. Whether the narrator, or indeed Abe himself, intends it or not, The Face of Another seems to me a clear dramatisation of the social model of disability. The disfigured face is not the problem, per se; the public reaction to it, and the profound social disadvantage at which it places the narrator, is.)

At other times, the novel seems to trip itself up. It contains a lot of pondering, all in the first-person narrating voice, on questions of identity, loneliness, selfhood. These aren’t without value, but they are repetitive and difficult to wade through; that could be down to the translation, but it seems, taking the book as a whole, as though Abe really does want to give us a claustrophobic insight into the narrator’s thought processes, circular and self-lacerating as they are. It struck me how little the protagonist talks to anyone else: he doesn’t seem to have friends, he doesn’t take his wife into his confidence and ask her honestly for help, he has no family. It makes for sad and painful reading, and the repetitiveness takes its toll. The descriptions of the process by which he makes the mask are also extensive, and one’s interest does flag a little as the details roll by.

The ending is fascinatingly ambiguous: the narrator’s wife, having had this months-long affair, discovers the notebooks in their usual meeting place and reads them through. He has left them there for her on purpose, wanting to reveal himself and shame her for her “infidelity”. Instead, she replies to him in a note that clarifies that she’s known his true identity all along. Humiliated and defeated, he stalks her through the streets of their city, and in the final image of the book, he is hiding behind a wall with a pistol, listening to footsteps coming closer. They might be hers—he thinks they are—although the reader knows they might not be. It is no doubt unsophisticated of me to wish they had simply discussed things together in person.

So: an odd book. My first introduction to Abe, and a mixed bag. It was made into a film by Hiroshi Teshigahara and apparently is more successful in that medium, which makes perfect sense to me; it relies so heavily on creating a psychological atmosphere, and I can see film doing that more efficiently than fiction. If anyone out there has read more of Kobo Abe’s novels, do tell me: are they all like this? Is there a particular title I might move on to from here?


Love Your Library, January 2023

Rebecca of Bookish Beck runs this monthly meme, which I am very much enjoying!


The History of Mr. Polly, by H.G. Wells (1910): I said on Twitter that this is a book about a man finding true love and happiness with a fat woman, and it is! Alfred Polly is a miserable, failing small businessman living in a provincial town and trapped in a marriage he hates. His imaginative capacities are immense, but his education has been scanty. Desperate for beauty and poetry, but unable to find it in his life as it is, and ground down to despair, he plans to set his shop on fire and then cut his throat, thus neatly ensuring his own death and his wife’s receipt of a large sum of insurance money. This plan backfires spectacularly, but what it does for Polly is make him realise, as Wells famously wrote, that “if you don’t like your life, you can change it.” A life of happy vagrancy ensues, during which Polly grows as a person, discovers his courage, and enters a fulfilling relationship with the landlady of a country pub (the aforementioned fat woman, whose size is integral to her perfection in Polly’s eyes)—but the final test of his character is yet to come. It’s simultaneously extremely funny (the account of Mr. Polly’s wedding literally had me laughing out loud) and has what Adam Roberts calls “an unforced dignity”: Wells knows Polly is not exactly a hero, but what is it to change your life and seek joy, if not heroic? Glorious, and with an ending that is almost tear-inducing in its quiet sweetness.

The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather (1925): Definitely the oddest Cather novel I’ve read so far. It has a lopsided three-part structure, bookended by two sections that follow the titular Professor, Godfrey St. Peter, as he and his family try to come to terms with the changing dynamics imposed by the wild success of a patent taken out by St. Peter’s former student Tom Outland—who was engaged to S.P.’s eldest daughter Rosamond, died in WWI, and left everything to her in his will. The middle section is an account of Tom’s experiences as a young(er) man on the Blue Mesa in the American Southwest, where he and a friend find evidence of an ancient Native American settlement, and where, eventually, their friendship is shattered by a betrayal. The sections don’t have an obvious fit with each other, but that’s part of what makes the book interesting. The Professor is obviously haunted by Tom, who represents something significant and vital to him. There are certainly homoerotic undertones (especially given Tom’s broken friendship with his Blue Mesa pal Roddy Blake). Philosophically, it’s quite bleak; I’m not sure what I make of it, but Cather still produces perfect landscape writing and emotionally descriptive prose.

Little Sister Death, by William Gay (2015): Posthumously published from material found in Gay’s papers, this tiptoes the line between Southern Gothic and horror in its reimagining of the Bell Witch haunting. I liked Gay’s style plenty, but didn’t find this as terrifying as the publicity had promised. The opening chapter, which is profoundly early-Cormac McCarthy-esque in content though not in style (probably not a coincidence: Gay and McCarthy were very good friends and read each other’s work in manuscript), is powerful and scary, but we never return to it—it’s more of a prologue—and that feels like something of a disappointment.

The Half Life of Valery K, by Natasha Pulley (2022): Pulley has written five books and I have now read all of them, which makes her one of my most-read authors. I think this one is her best. It’s the least overtly fantastical (there’s no precognition/time travel/steampunk), but that’s because realism is quite fantastical enough when it’s about the Soviet Union’s nuclear secrets. Valery Kolkhanov is plucked from the labour camp where he’s serving a ten-year sentence and reassigned to an extremely peculiar experimental laboratory near Chelyabinsk, where the local forest is dying of radiation exposure but the propaganda figures say nothing is wrong. Valery quickly determines that very much is wrong, and finds himself caught between the KGB, his former doctoral supervisor, and his conscience. Other Pulley tropes (MLM yearning, people who are probably autistic but live in contexts where diagnosis isn’t really possible, octopuses) are gloriously present and correct, and everything is pulled together into a compulsively readable package; highly recommended.

The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino, transl. William Weaver, Tim Parks, and Martin McLaughlin (2009): All the “cosmicomic” stories Calvino ever wrote, published all together for the first time. This was my introduction to Calvino and highly enjoyable, if (through no fault of its own) a little repetitive. The cosmicomics are wildly inventive and peculiar stories, each of which takes some scientific principle about the universe as a jumping-off point. Many are narrated by the irrepressible (and unpronounceable) Qfwfq, who is sometimes a dinosaur, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes an elemental, clearly an eternal. My favourites were “The Aquatic Uncle”, in which land-dwelling animals evolve but one eccentric relative refuses to leave the water, and “The Daughters of the Moon”, in which lunar activity causes a frenzied parade of naked women in New York City to first chase, then worship, then rescue, the moon. Lovely, weird, thought-provoking, often very funny. I’ve requested a bunch of his other work now.

The Three, by Sarah Lotz (2014): Like Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, an entry in the excellent-execution-of-schlocky-genre-concept books. I heard about this through Blair Rose’s newsletter Learn This Phrase, I think, Lotz’s novel is about three miraculous child survivors of plane crashes that happen almost simultaneously around the world. Their survival shouldn’t have been possible, and everyone from chat show hosts to religious fundamentalists wants a piece of them and their story. As the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that there really is something wrong with all of them, but nobody has all of the puzzle pieces… Like World War Z, it’s told as though it’s an oral history/documentation collage, including autopsy reports, interview transcripts, chat logs, and voicemail messages. Fantastically chilling, an ending that lands just on the right side of ambiguous (imo), and there’s a sequel of sorts. I’ve already reserved it!


Infinite Ground, by Martin McInnes (2016): Pleasing flavours of Jeff VanderMeer, in this story of a detective inspector trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a man named Carlos in an unspecified South American country. The surrealness of the inspector’s methods—trying to recreate a precisely accurate copy of Carlos’s office, analysing the air he might have inhaled, focusing on his microbiome—is probably going somewhere, but there’s no guarantee of anything making sense. I downloaded it as a backup for my conference trip, but a lack of immersion meant I lost interest. I’ll certainly try McInnes’s other novel, Gathering Evidence, and I’ll probably try Infinite Ground again later.

The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper (1826), and Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Henry Howarth Bashford (1924): I grabbed both of these off the shelves without really thinking, the Cooper because it’s been in my head for a while as a possible American Classics project book, and the Bashford because it’s on the Guardian 1000-best-books list and I’ve never seen it in the wild before, ever. But at the moment, the Cooper isn’t what I fancy (I’ll go for it later in the year), and the Bashford strikes me as very Diary of a Nobody-esque, which is a great vein of comedy, but as I’ve already read Diary of a Nobody, and as comic writing per se isn’t one of my great literary loves, I’m not actually that interested in it right now. It’s good to know the Bromley library system has it, though!

It’s been something of a joy to decide not to read these. They’d both make good entries in my self-imposed project reading, each in its own way, but I don’t fancy them right now and that’s okay! No one is going to make me read stuff I don’t want to or give me a reward for doing so! I can just return them and maybe try again later! Revelation.

The Great Reread, #2: Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris

Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris (2014). First read: May 2014.

What I thought the first time: I initially reviewed this for Quadrapheme, an online literary magazine I was involved with at the time. It’s now defunct and I didn’t keep my review drafts (fool!) But, as it turns out, I did make notes on the endpapers of my copy (!) Most of these are to do with the gender politics of the story: how brutal and predatory the environment surrounding our main character, 13-year-old Nikki, is, and how she uses her girlhood to her advantage, but not in the way we usually expect from stories like this. Many of the book’s details had vanished from memory, but Nikki really stuck with me. It was also one of my 2014 Books of the Year.

What I thought this time: The main plot of the book is concerned with how Nikki—barely into her teens—becomes a drug lord in rural North Carolina, which is definitely something I did remember. I think what struck me the most about it this time was its tone. In some ways, that plot description seems to demand comedy, if a Fargo-like variety of comedy. Young God is not comic. It is told in spare, bleak sentences, chapters usually only a page or two long. Scenes that might, in other hands, have a blackly humorous edge—like the scene where Nikki and her father, Coy Hawkins, drag trash bags full of a murdered girl’s body parts up a mountain and hurl them off the top—are not even a little bit funny.

In some ways I think that’s a mistake; in other ways, it ties in with Nikki’s almost total lack of interiority. Rarely, if ever, does Morris focus on how Nikki feels about anything. She does things—lots of things—but she never seems to think about why she does them. Only in very small asides, mostly in dialogue between characters who know each other from way back, does a picture begin to emerge of what her life before the book starts was like. In one of these, she asks her grandma, now bedridden and virtually comatose, why she wasn’t “chosen” and her little cousin Levi was; there have already been references to Nikki’s life in “the group home” and her terror of “DSS”, the Department of Social Services. The implication—that her grandmother was made to choose which grandchild to keep, and went for the younger one (and the boy)—says a lot about Nikki’s relationship to her own feelings: she’s already learned that she can’t really afford them. What seems to motivate her is pride: first in trying to rehabilitate her dad’s reputation (he used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county; when she returns to live with him, he is trying to stay out of trouble, but she considers his current activities beneath him), then in deciding to build up her own.

It was probably inevitable that I wouldn’t feel such strong admiration for Young God this time around. It’s a hard-hitting novel, for sure, but I’m less easily impressed now. Morris relies quite heavily on shock: the shock of declarative sentences and violent acts (“Coy Hawkins pulls the gun from his boot and shoots Renee in the face”), the shock of profoundly transgressive behaviour from a very young girl (“Heroin is the most secret of them all and needles are the most secret part and she has always loved secrets”), the shock of its formal presentation on the page (single-line chapters, lots of blank (or “charged white”) space.) That doesn’t always work cohesively with the emotional reactions that Morris seems to be aiming for with some of her other authorial choices, like Coy’s occasional apparent remorse for what happened in Nikki’s early life. It would be interesting to see how her writing has developed since this; she’s published one other book (Ultraluminous, in 2017).

Recent Nonfiction Reads: The Right to Sex and A Horse at Night

Herewith, brief considerations of my two most recent reads, both of which were nonfiction.

The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan (2021)

I bought this during a happy ninety minute spree in Blackwell’s after a major 18th-century studies conference at St Hugh’s College, which was a glorious three days of scholarship and friend-making, but which was also highly social and draining. I skipped the final plenary roundtable (I’m sorry!) in favour of some solitary book shopping to restore my introvert energy tank. The Right to Sex is (in short) a brilliant collection of essays by an All Souls fellow, tackling phenomena like Internet pornography, the incel movement, legalising sex work, and the shortcomings of a model of good sex that operates solely on the binary basis of consent = good, non-consent = bad. What Srinivasan’s thinking reminds me of the most is Jia Tolentino’s, in the latter’s collection on modern technology, Trick Mirror—there is that same commitment to thinking through absolutely every angle, following every thread to its conclusion, and resisting not only easy answers, but often any answers at all. Which isn’t to say that Srinivasan has no point of view: she very much does, but she forces us to ask what it actually means to claim (for instance) that our feminism is “intersectional” or “sex-positive”. The Right to Sex has acted as a whetstone, sharpening up my thinking, and I’m going to be recommending it a lot.

A Horse at Night: On Writing, Amina Cain (2022)

This was a passed-on volume from a writer friend and former colleague. I’d read Cain’s novel Indelicacy and felt vaguely positive indifference for it; it was obviously stylish but didn’t make me feel much of anything, and wasn’t therefore really my cup of tea. A Horse at Night, which is a collection of short musings (some no more than a page long) on various books, paintings and films in relation to Cain’s own authorial projects, cemented my notion that she and I simply value different things in fiction, and in art generally. She comes back to the power of landscape a lot, but its power for her seems to be of the impressionistic, not the concrete, variety. Many of the authors she cites are ones whose work has provoked in me a similar vaguely positive indifference—Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy. I prefer other things: the satisfactions of plot, which may be a vulgar pleasure but is not worth denying; depth of character; colour, texture, detail and density in language. It’s not a value judgement on Cain’s taste, or on mine, but it means that what she gets out of art is unlikely to be what I get out of it, and so her thinking is focused away from what interests me.

Have you read either of these? If so (and even if not!), do you have thoughts?

A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, by Harry Crews

Where I grew up, in rural central Virginia, there was a local man named Dick Gladstone. We knew him through the Ruritan, a small-town service club that my father had joined upon moving to the area, and I saw him regularly at meetings and get-togethers. He had a rough, gravelly voice and he was bent forward permanently at the shoulders; in order to look you in the eye, he had to physically twist himself sideways and look up at you, which gave him a faintly roguish air. I was afraid of him for a time when I was very small, until it was explained to me that he had been thrown against the wall of a barn when he was a young man by an angry bullock, and although his back had been broken, it had somehow also healed and had not paralyzed him permanently.

He would not have been out of place in Harry Crews’s memoir, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, which has just been reissued in the UK in a smart Penguin Classics edition, and which (despite being only my third book of 2023) is now a strong contender for the best-of-year list. Crews was a cult novelist of what’s sometimes called “grit lit”, emerging out of the Southern gothic tradition, and this memoir of his first six years of life in Bacon County, Georgia, contains all the grotesquerie, all the dry wit, and all the arrestingly profound and gorgeous writing you would expect from Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner. (Indeed, John Williams once referred to his work as being “like [O’Connor] on steroids”.) He opens it by imagining himself into a time ten years before his birth, when his father—who died so young that Crews has no memory of him—is working in Florida, building highways, and is struck with gonorrhea. It’s a completely remarkable opening, it’s extremely funny (he constructs dialogue between his father and a friend, Carl, the flat matter-of-factness of which conceals reservoirs of meaning), and it immediately introduces some of Crews’s key preoccupations: home, legacy, inheritance, recovery, how people actually lived and why they lived that way. “Whatever I am,” he writes,

has its source back there in Bacon County, from which I left when I was seventeen years old to join the Marine Corps, and to which I never returned to live. I have always known, though, that part of me never left, could never leave, the place where I was born, and, further, that what has been most significant in my life had all taken place by the time I was six years old.

A Childhood, p. 6

It is not an easy life. Most of the people young Harry knows are maimed in some way, an eye missing here or a scarred limb there. He and his friend Willalee Bookatee are obsessed with the Sears Roebuck catalog, partly because its inhabitants are so implausibly physically perfect. They invent stories about the models, pretending that one is an angry father, another his cherished only daughter, and a third the daughter’s no-good suitor. Willalee is black—his parents, Katie and Will, live in a cottage on Harry’s parents’ land—and one of the most fascinating aspects of A Childhood is the utter lack of racial prejudice between the families. Crews as an older man is not naive about the experiences that Willalee and his parents must have had in that time and place, and he recounts an aunt’s casual use of the n-word, but for his and his parents’ part, there seems to be no divide. He mentions the presence of another black man, John C. Pace, at a communal hog slaughter, identifying him as black but with no other markers in the text that suggest anything like social inferiority. He describes being aware that slavery had existed—Willalee’s grandma, always called Auntie, was born enslaved—but finding the whole notion of it baffling, mysterious, and inexplicable. So often, twentieth-century narratives of the Deep South reinforce the Harper Lee image of Jim Crow society; that absolutely existed, but it feels like an act of historical recovery to read an account of a life where the situation was less adversarial and more generally indifferent. I suspect part of this is down to class, and survival. Willalee and Harry are both the children of extremely poor farming families. Farmers do not do stupid or unnecessary things, and racism in that context is particularly stupid and unnecessary: when your closest neighbors are people you may literally rely on to live, and they rely on you in the same way, neither of you is going to have much time for artificially introduced social division.

It is also a very funny life at times: Harry’s meditations on “God and little girls”, both of which scare him witless; the account of their hired man Mr. Willis and their slow mule Pete, who stops every seventy yards because they bought him from an elderly farmer and the mule had gotten used to pausing regularly so his previous owner could catch a breather. It is a tender life: the man Harry knows as his father (who is actually his uncle) comforting him after he has walked in his sleep; his grandmother protecting him from his mother’s wrath even though he has behaved terribly all afternoon. Sometimes the funniness and the scariness and difficulty go together: describing his stepfather’s firing a gun inside the house while drunk, Crews muses,

I still loved him. For all I knew, every family was like that. I knew for certain it was not unusual for a man to shoot at his wife. It was only unusual if he hit her.

A Childhood, p. 129

A perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, self-awareness and innocence, description of place and evocation of character, psychology and action—I can’t praise it more highly. I’m so glad Penguin has reissued it, along with one of Crews’s novels, The Gospel Singer (1968). That’s high on my wishlist, and I hope they’ll continue to reissue his fiction. His writing is a marvel, and I think I’ve just found a new ride-or-die, read-it-all writer.

A Childhood: the Biography of a Place was reprinted in 2022, but originally published in 1978. Although it isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I first devised the American Classics reading project, I rather think the Penguin imprimatur makes it eligible, so I am counting it as my first read under that heading!

The Great Reread, #1: Do Not Say We Have Nothing–Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (2016). First read: March 2017.

What I thought the first time: I wrote that “the book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change” and that it was “the most intellectually sophisticated book of the [2017 Bailey’s Prize] longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story… on the page, it looks simple [but] develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends… very affecting and deeply intelligent.”

What I thought this time: Most of this assessment, I stand by! Thien’s writing about three young conservatory students in Shanghai during China’s Cultural Revolution engages on a very high level with how social and political repression can sink into the soul, how profoundly being deprived of your art can change who you are. This time around, the structural particularities (and peculiarities) of the novel stood out more to me. It begins with a framing story set in the 1990s, which continues moving forward at the start of each chapter to the year of the novel’s composition, that describes narrator Marie’s encounter with student and political radical Ai-ming, sent to live with Marie and her mother in Vancouver after she participates in the Tiananmen Square uprising. Ai-ming tells Marie stories about their intertwined families: their fathers, Kai and Sparrow, are two of the three Shanghai conservatory students that the novel spends the most time with. Sparrow is the son of the fantastically named Big Mother Knife, who spends her young adulthood traveling through China singing in teahouses with her sister, Swirl—who marries a man named Wen the Dreamer and has a daughter named Zhuli, who becomes a talented violinist and the third Shanghai Conservatory student. Relationships between family members and close friends in the novel are many and complex, and Thien flashes back and forth between time periods, trusting the reader to keep up. Her writing is clear enough that it’s never hard to work out when and where we are, but it can be easy to lose track of who the characters are to each other.

The first time I read this, I think I poured a lot more emotion into it, and therefore seem to have gotten a lot of emotion out. Memory and my book journal agree that I had just started working at Heywood Hill Bookshop, just started getting back into the swing of the bookselling and publishing world, and my strong recollection is that I was overjoyed to be doing so. Those strong feelings almost certainly coloured my reading at the time, at least to an extent. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is definitely a thoughtful, worthwhile, intelligent and accomplished novel, one that could easily have won the Booker Prize that year, in addition to the then-Bailey’s Prize (although in the end it won neither, losing out to Lincoln In the Bardo and The Power, respectively). But this time around, I read the first half of it in bits and pieces—time snatched from travel to, and participation in, a major conference in my academic field—and given the structural characteristics I mentioned above, this meant it took me a lot longer to fully engage with the book.

Conclusions: I don’t do star-ratings for books anymore (it’s become too frustrating to boil my reactions, positive and negative, down into a system of that nature!) but in 2017, I gave this five stars. I wouldn’t do that now—instead, perhaps, I’d think of it as a solid A- regarding ambition of thought and quality of writing, while reserving a B for the occasional resistance generated by the structure.