Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another (1966) has a better cover than The Woman in the Dunes, but that cheap thrill is soon forgotten when ploughing through this turgid tome.
The blurb makes it sound almost thrilling, like an updated Invisible Man:
The narrator is a scientist hideously deformed in a laboratory accident – a man who has lost his face and, with it, connection to other people. Even his wife is now repulsed by him. His only entry back into the world is to create a mask so perfect as to be undetectable. But soon he finds that such a mask is more than a disguise: it is an alternate self – a self that is capable of anything. A remorseless meditation on nature, identity, and the social contract, The Face of Another is an intellectual horror story of the highest order.
But where The Woman in the Dunes (which immediately preceded The Face of Another in publication) managed to combine some fairly knotty metaphysical concerns with a driving storyline, this falters and trips over its own quasi-philosophical musings. These take the form of the narrator’s diary and additional notes thereon, and while the story begins to take a linear form after a confused opening, it pretty soon gets mixed up again and grinds away to little effect.
The main engine of the plot is when the narrator – who has suffered horrific slug-like lumpy scars to his face when splashed with liquid oxygen – decides to use the realistic mask he has created to disguise himself and seduce his wife. A great deal of time is spent on his attempts to get the mask right, but it gets lost in rather waffly stuff about the nature of one’s face affects the personality and psyche. Eventually I was glad to be rid of the thing.
The best thing about it are the forty-eight little iconic illustrations which begin each section, and which look like meaningless patterns to begin with, and then resolve themselves into different stylised faces and masks. One could profitably flick through and enjoy them, however, without wading through all the words in between.