Friday, August 12, 2011

100 Books 42 - Kobo Abe's THE FACE OF ANOTHER

I wrote about this book a little bit last month, just because of the musings it provoked about Facebook and Google. I hadn't yet finished it then, though, and hadn't yet confronted its essential, oppressive creepiness -- it is by far the creepiest book I have ever read, and it's not even horror.

I experienced this story first several years ago via the film adaptation by the great Hiroshi Teshigahara:

One of the things that interests me is the tandem experience of book and film; the film really explores the idea -- a man's face is destroyed in an accident and he creates (or, in the film, has created) a mask so lifelike almost nobody realizes it's a mask at all, only to find that instead of restoring him fully to his life and his humanity, he has become more of a monster than he was when his face was a hideous mass of scars and ruined tissue -- from the exterior. The plot wanders quite a bit from that of the novel, but that's immaterial for my purposes; what interests me now is how book and film complement each other; the film cannot, except in voice-overs, really explore the inner man of the scientist except indirectly (hence the introduction of a sub-plot lifted mostly from a film our protagonist watches early on in the book, of a girl, her face half destroyed in the Hiroshima bombing, who does charitable work for WWII veterans despite her disfigurement, but who is ultimately too isolated by it to continue); for all its startling imagery (get a load of that doctor's office, wholly invented for  the film), it does not begin to come close to what makes the book such a disturbing read.

The book is written in an extended epistolary/diary form; the first person narrator is the scientist (nameless in the book) who has lost his face, writing an extended confessional to his wife. And herein lies the creepiness, for while he believes he has fashioned the mask (in secret, all on his own, in the book) to "restore the roadway" between him and his wife, he has gotten so carried away with the sudden duality of existence it affords him that he has actually come to think of The Mask as another person, a person who quickly becomes his Mr. Hyde, all id and transgressions, all an exploration of what he can get away with when no one knows it's him. Inevitably -- and I give nothing away here that isn't given away in the very opening paragraphs of the book -- he and it decide to see about seducing his own wife; the roadway he sought to restore to her is left forgotten; he takes the long way round and comes back at her as a stranger, and then rages with jealousy when Mask Him succeeds.

Throughout this confession, he reveals that the roadway was washed out long ago; he has created a wife-emulator in his head who is much stupider than she really is, less perceptive and  with no self-determination, and unwaveringly regards his real wife as that lesser being. She is trapped in his imagination, confined to the smallest possible space, surrounded on all sides by him and his limited, limiting understanding of her -- and the further we get into the novel, the more oppressive is his tendency to project onto her most, if not all, of his negative feelings about himself. It's a classic trope, but I've never seen it so elegantly, horrifyingly done as here. The build-up to the actual meeting between Mask Him and his wife treats the seduction as a fait accompli ratchets the depressing creepiness up to eleven; all the time we spend alone (except for the Mask) in the nameless man's skull dials it up to twelve.

I can't recommend this one highly enough, shattering though it is.

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