In the last novel written before his death in 1993, one of Japan's most distinguished novelists proffered a surreal vision of Japanese society that manages to be simultaneously fearful and jarringly funny. The narrator of Kangaroo Notebook wakes on morning to discover that his legs are growing radish sprouts, an ailment that repulses his doctor but provides the patient with the unusual ability to snack on himself. In short order, Kobo Abe's unraveling protagonist finds himself hurtling in a hospital bed to the very shores of hell. Abe has assembled a cast of oddities into a coherent novel, one imbued with unexpected meaning. Translated from the Japanese by Maryellen Toman Mori.
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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Japanese
In his last novel, Abe, who died in 1993, repeatedly swings with ease from outlandish shenanigans to grisly surrealism. The unnamed narrator is a low-level employee at an office-supply firm who, in jest, proposes a new product called a Kangaroo Notebook. His assignment to produce a rough sketch of the notebook is interrupted, however, when he discovers, while eating breakfast, that radish sprouts are growing where his leg hair used to be. At a dermatology clinic, he meets a disturbingly seductive nurse, after which he is then strapped to a bed in an operating room and tranquilized. From this point, the narrator's experiences grow increasingly hallucinatory as he is released into the world with nothing more than a blanket and a hospital bed, which turns out to be a remarkable machine with its own agenda. Buffeted about, seemingly deprived of free will, the narrator lands in a corner of hell, where he takes a sulfur-spring cure and meets child-demons who perform for tourists and the villainous specter of his own mother. More than once, he is rescued by the nurse from the clinic, who, it turns out, collects blood for her own mysterious purposes and has a strange American boyfriend named Master Hammer Killer, who conducts research into sudden deaths. As events propel the narrator toward the Japanese Euthanasia Club, Abe (The Woman in the Dunes; The Ark Sakura) deftly blends antic comedy with metaphysical dread while maintaining the internal logic of a narrative which, in its lighthearted obsession with death, feels less like a whistling past the graveyard than a winking message from beyond.
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