Volume III

Kangaroo Notebook

by Kōbō Abe

Translated by Maryellen Toman Mori

The titular kangaroo notebook is an aside, an effort on the narrator’s part to explain the kind of work-induced stress that might cause the hair on one’s legs to fall out and be replaced by cleft-leaf radish sprouts. It is an idea obligatorily submitted to the suggestion box at the office supply company where to narrator works. To him, it’s an absurdity, two words with no meaningful relation. He has an interest in marsupials and he works for an office supply company. Kangaroo notebook — nothing behind it.

Kangaroo Notebook is the last novel Kōbō Abe completed before his death in 1993. It is the lightest of all his books, a work of conceptual surrealism. At first consideration, it’s hard to take seriously; The Face of Another or Woman in the Dunes offer a lot more existential weight, and for psycho-sexual weirdness Secret Rendezvous carries more uncomfortable insights. I’ve read that Kangaroo Notebook bears a closer resemblance to Abe’s theatrical work (of which I am not familiar), and this may explain the novel’s peculiarities to an extent, but that does not make the book seem any less ephemeral when placed next to Abe’s other novels.

As one digs deeper, however, the seeming absurdity of the premise gives way to a dark subtext, and the themes that have characterized the rest of Abe’s work begin to show themselves.

The narrative involves the journey of the unnamed narrator seeking treatment for the radish sprouts growing from his legs. He visits a dermatology clinic, where he is fitted with urethral and central venous catheters, strapped to a hospital bed, and sent rolling through the city. Kōbō Abe was trained in medicine, though he never practiced, and clinical settings are hallmarks of his of his work. The Box Man and Secret Rendezvous both presented hospitals as places where societal taboos about the body and personal privacy are suspended. If these things are allowed, Abe posits, what other peccadilloes might be indulged in the name of health? In Kangaroo Notebook, the clinic goes on a tour of the country as the narrator rides his bed, at times behaving like an automobile and at others like a loyal horse, through increasingly strange locales. In time, he even comes to accept the radish sprouts, finding that they can provide him with sustenance. He becomes a human version of the “clock-bug” described in The Ark Sakura, a counterfeit insect with no legs, which survives by spinning in place and eating its own excrement.

The structuring principal of Kangaroo Notebook is that the narrator’s thoughts transform his reality. The narrator coolly seeks explanations for the strange things going on around him, and these thoughts shape the next event. In one of the most surreal episodes, the narrator passes a sign which reminds him of a suspense novel that he read as a child describing the bombing of a department store. The plot involves certain explosive properties of the sexual organs of squid. As he recalls the details of the story, the narrator notices that they are recreating themselves before his eyes; in fact, his own IV bag has been replaced with squid parts.

In many ways, this is the story of a journey to hell on a hospital bed. Abe is drawing a comparison here that he has made before: between punishment for wrong-doing and treatment for disease. For one’s sins one is sent to hell; for one’s health one is sent to Hell Valley. The narrator claims that a cut on the shin means a guilty conscience, but what I’ve got on my shin is no cut but a radish sprout patch, yet the novel ends with a newspaper clipping describing a body found with slash marks on his legs. There is no specific mention of the narrator’s crime, but perhaps a clue can be found in the fact that he is prescribed treatment at the Riverbank of Sai, the “children’s limbo” of Japanese Buddhist folklore, and in the repeated appearance of a woman with sloping eyes.

The sloping-eyed woman appears in three different forms, though subtle clues imply that they may not be as different as the narrator asserts. Initially, she is the familiar sexy nurse: authoritarian, cold, licentious, and distant. At one point, the nurse, referred to as Damselfly due to her round glasses, rescues the narrator from an old woman who claims to be the ghost of his mother, effectively replacing one female authority figure with another more attractive one. This is a character that Abe has used before, the omnipotent nurse, always available to change a catheter or draw some blood, but completely out of reach for anything beyond that.

The narrator desires the authority figure, but she is too powerful to obtain, so he conjures up more achievable versions: young girls against whom he can take a more dominant position. He sees her again as a “child-demon” on the Banks of the River Sai, condemned along with the other children to build cairns on the riverbank only to have them constantly destroyed. Abe’s descriptions of this character are subtly odd. She is taller than the other children, and the curve of her breasts was visible through her threadbare undershirt, indicating that she is perhaps not as young as he assumes. The narrator develops an attachment to this girl, though he dismisses the implication that the attraction might be sexual, insisting that sloping eyes and slanting eyes are all the same to me; I’m about ready to be castrated. Still his interest in her is significant enough that he considers living on the riverbank so that he will be guaranteed the pleasure of catching glimpses of that girl, if even at a distance.

The last manifestation of the sloping-eyed woman is also a young girl, who passes the narrator’s bed on an amusement-park train. She appears again at the end of the book to lure the narrator into a domestic trap. Disturbingly, she claims that she is waiting for a “kidnapper” as the narrator wonders about the age for consensual intercourse. Again, there are inconsistencies between the character’s reported age and her behavior. She politely offers the narrator a beer to drink while they wait for the train, and her expertise in heating a rice bun in a microwave causes the narrator to consider that she must have settled into life here and grown pretty accustomed to it.

The girl from the train inserts the narrator into a nightmare version of one of Sartre’s famous philosophical set-pieces: a person watches another through a keyhole, thinking that by doing so he will be safe from objectification in the eyes of the other, yet this person is caught in the act by a third person and is filled with fear and shame. Abe explored variations on this set-up in a number of his earlier novels. In The Face of Another, a mask takes the place of the peephole; the protagonist is able to watch the world through his facial prosthesis, but the world is unable to look upon him. In The Box Man, another wrinkle is added. The box man can be seen seeing (the presence of a box man indicates that one is being watched), but the box man remains safe from observation.

In Kangaroo Notebook, Abe transforms this scenario using a show with mirrors. The narrator peers through a peephole (which, tellingly, seems to be punched out of wet cardboard) and sees himself from behind staring through a peep hole at himself. The narrator thus occupies all three places at once; he is being watched, watching, and being observed watching all at the same time. Yet he cannot return his own look and regain a portion of his subjectivity. He is trapped in a voyeuristic loop by his own gaze.

My intention in writing these essays is to recommend books or films that the reader may have missed. I have limited myself to one essay per author, since I tend to relate a particular writer’s novels to each other in the course of a review and I don’t want to repeat myself. As this is Kōbō Abe’s article, I would be remiss to recommend Kangaroo Notebook above my favorite of his novels, The Face of Another. I do find, however, that Kangaroo Notebook does not get its fair consideration in the body of Abe’s work. On the surface, the novel appears silly, irreverent, and slight. The final pages seem, on first reading, to be an incongruously dark epilogue to what was to that point a gruesome farce. Careful consideration and an open mind, however, reveal that this is more than a string of fantastical episodes. In Kangaroo Notebook, Abe uses surrealism as a shortcut for making uncomfortable observations about the mind. It is a novel about the mutation of pure thought by the machinery of desire. Rather than explain this process, however, Abe reproduces it.