The Box Man: A Novel (Kobo Abe)

I’m reading a strange book right now, Kobo Abe‘s “The Box Man“, which is basically the diary of a man who started wearing a large cardboard box over his head.

I came to think of Radiohead’s video for “Just” as I read the bit below; the underline’s added by yours truly:

Now I’ll get right to the point: I’d like for you to listen to a story about a radio so you can know what sort of person I am. Yes, a radio. Actually I was terribly addicted to news for a long time. I wonder if you see what I mean. I couldn’t stand it if there weren’t fresh news reports coming in one after the other all the time. Battlefield situations go on changing minute by minute. Moving picture stars and singers keep marrying and divorcing. Rockets go shooting off to Mars, and a fishing boat sends off an SOS and blacks out. A pyromaniacal fire chief is apprehended. When a venomous serpent escapes from a load of bananas and an employee of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry commits suicide and a little girl of three is raped, an international conference achieves great success and ends by collapsing, a society is formed to breed sterilized mice, a child is discovered buried in cement at the construction site of a supermarket, the total number of deserters from troops throughout the world sets a new record, the world seems to be boiling over like a teakettle. The globe’s capable of changing shape the minute you take your eyes off it for even a second. I took seven different newspapers; I set up in my room two television sets and three radios; when I went out I never let a portable radio out of my hand, and when I went to sleep I left the earphones plugged in. I got different news reports on different stations at the same time, and there could be special news broadcasts at any moment. Timid animals keep too close a watch around them, and gradually like the giraffe their necks stretch or like the monkey they become incapable of coming down out of the trees. Don’t laugh. For the one afflicted it’s serious. He spends the greater part of the day just reading and listening to news. Angry with the weakness of his own will, still with aching heart, he is unable to separate himself from the radio or television. Of course, I was very much aware that no matter how much I went rooting around for news I wouldn’t necessarily come closer to the truth. I realized that, but I couldn’t stop. Perhaps I needed the news form, which is summarized in clichés, not truth or experience. In short, I was thoroughly addicted to news.

One day, however, I suddenly recovered. A trivial event, served as an antidote, so really trivial that I myself inclined my head in disbelief. It was—where was it indeed?—oh, yes, at one corner of the wide sidewalk between the subway station and the bank. During the day few people pass that way. A middle-aged fellow who at first glance seemed to be a white-collar worker was walking in the most ordinary way right in front of me. Suddenly all the strength left his legs, and he moved as if to sit down, but fell on his side, and lay motionless. I had the feeling he was playing a game of big bad wolf with a child and had been shot. A young fellow with the air of a student, who was passing by, looked at the fallen man amused. “My God, he’s dead!” he said. I remember that he looked up at me shocked with a wan smile on his lips. I paid no attention, but he reluctantly went to use the telephone at a tobacconist’s two or three stores farther on. Being a professional photographer—well, I was, merely to the extent of getting a job once or twice a month making commercial samples of insert advertisements—I at once set up my camera and tried focusing it from all sorts of angles. In the end I changed my mind and did not take a picture, but that was not because I was especially grieving over the corpse. It was because I realized at once that it would absolutely never become news.

Dying is, of course, a kind of transformation. First of all, the skin suddenly pales. Then the nose thins, and the jaw withers and gets smaller. The half-open mouth resembles the edge of a tangerine skin cut open with a knife, and the red artificial teeth of the lower jaw begin to jut out from the opening. Further, even the clothes that are being worn change. What appeared to be of very high quality turns before one’s eyes into cheap goods, showy but worthless. Of course, such things are not news. But it would seem that for the dead man in question whether it’s news or not has nothing to do with him. Supposing one is the tenth victim, that had fallen into the hands of a much-wanted, fiendish killer, I don’t suppose he would devise a particularly different way of dying. The dead person has changed himself, but the outside world has changed too, and things cannot change any more than they have. It’s such a great change that no news, however big, can match it.

No sooner had I realized this than my thinking about news suddenly changed completely. How shall I say …? Slogans won’t do the trick: “You too can stop news-watching.” But I think you understand … somehow … why everybody wants news the way they do. Are they preparing for times of emergency by knowing in advance the changes taking place in the world, I wonder? I used to think so. But that was a big lie. People listen to news only to feel reassured. Because however great the news of catastrophe they hear, those listening are still perfectly alive. The really big news is the ultimate news announcing the end of the world, I suppose. Of course, everybody wants to hear that. For then one does not need to abandon the world alone. When I think about it, I feel the reason that I was addicted was my eagerness not to miss this ultimate broadcast. But as long as the news goes on, it will never get to the end. Thus news constitutes the announcement that it is still not the end of the world. The following trifling clichés are merely abridgments. Last night the greatest bombings of North Vietnam this year were carried out by B52s, but somehow you are still alive. Gas lines under construction ignited and eight persons received serious and light wounds, but you are alive and safe. Record rate of rising prices, yet you continue to live. Extinction of marine life in bays by waste products from factories, but somehow you survive everything.

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