Saturday, 9 March 2019

Book review: The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe (1962)

I read enough of this piece of Postmodernism to get a feel for it but it wasn’t really very good so I stopped. The story opens with the tale of a man who goes insect collecting near the sea and who then goes missing. After seven years the authorities declare him dead as no trace of him had been found. This tiny vignette at the start of proceedings sets up a certain quantity of suspense.

Then the story of what happens to the man begins. On the day in question, he goes from the train station by bus to a small village and then climbs a large sand dune to get to the beach side, where he starts looking for insects. He is intent on finding an insect that he can be the first to discover, and he has a net and a box at the ready. As the day wanes, he is approached by an old man who asks him if he has somewhere to stay. He says that he does not and the man organises for him to spend the night in the home of a woman aged about 30. Inside her house, the sand is forever encroaching, and she tells him that it causes things to rot. He disputes this while she keeps digging the sand that accumulates around her house.

The ideas that animate the drama within the secondary material that is used to flesh out the bare bones of the narrative are encouraging on account of what appears to be a certain quantity of perspicacity. There is something about sand and its shifting, impermanent nature that the author is trying to convey to the reader, but the story’s forward movement by contrast lacks a certain vigour and you get caught up in apparently irreconcilable differences between the views of the two main characters. The thing doesn’t just go anywhere.

I’m all for novels of ideas and for free lateral movement in narratives that I read. They are often very entertaining and they can offer the reader ways of seeing the world that can be quite surprising. But what happens – or, more precisely, what doesn’t happen – in Abe’s novel means that you lose your ability to imagine the world he is trying to invent. Without this kind of engagement on the part of the reader, the whole enterprise falls apart. It’s as though Abe sets the reader up to expect something extraordinary and then subsequently forgets that he ever did so. The result is something like a broken promise.

It’s true that sometimes it can feel like a writer who creates a story for a reader to enjoy is like someone who throws a stick for a dog. You set up a scenario, you give the reader a puzzle to solve, then you release clues over the length of the novel until you reach the denouement, at which time all the problems are tied up in a neat bundle. Fini. Applause. Buy the next one. But writers at a certain point began to feel that this kind of pattern was inauthentic and they started looking for new ways to engage the reader that would be “more meaningful”.

In a sense, what Modernism was about was writers saying “No” to traditional methods of characterisation and habitual stylistic forms. They began to try to find ways to represent reality using texts that did the job more faithfully and more accurately. New forms and approaches were investigated for a period spanning about a century, right up to the emergence, in the middle of the 20th century, of the postmodern mode. You might be forgiven for saying that the Modernist project takes in everything from Melville to Proust to Faulkner. Things began to change with the appearance of novelists like Nabokov and Cortazar, who began to interrogate the very stuff of the fictive process itself, and whose books are therefore called “self-referential”. For these writers it wasn’t just about style and character, it was also about plot. Abe’s book falls into this category, it’s just that it’s not that good.

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