"Which situation should I declare 'real' and which one a 'dream'?" That's the question that plagues the narrator of The Kangaroo Notebook, who, after awakening to discover radish sprouts growing out of his shins, embarks on an eerie adventure -- in a world that seems increasingly hostile and mysterious -- to get rid of them. The question, however, might equally plague the reader of this surreal, playful and almost unassailably enigmatic novel, the final to be written by the late Kobo Abe, a former finalist for the Nobel Prize for Literature and one of Japan's foremost modern writers.
The plot is a weird and wild ride. After discovering his bizarre metamorphosis, the unnamed narrator checks into a dermatology clinic, where he meets a hostile but attractive nurse he dubs Damselfly and is administered a lot of drugs. Still strapped to his hospital bed and hooked up to an I.V., he is unceremoniously discharged. Visits to a glossy department store, a cabbage field that is home to the narrator's dead mother and Damselfly's apartment introduce spooky characters, like Mister Hammer Killer, an American karate expert whose love of violence lands the narrator once again in the hospital, and members of the "Help Me! Club," which consists of chanting children. Damselfly herself turns out to be a bit of a vampire. The peculiar finale nevertheless makes some sense under these strange fictional circumstances.
What does it all add up to? The swift-moving barrage of morbidly fascinating images, characters and places refract cleverly recurring themes (like the meaning of kangaroos,vampires, and those radish sprouts); while the heightened, almost hysterical vein of humor is balanced by deadpan lines like, "Something's really odd." As is often the case with surrealistic fiction, much of the strangeness supplants traditional story and character development, and thus may fail to compel readers emotionally. But as a romp through uncharted metaphysical territory -- the razor-thin line between life and death -- Abe has created a masterful, dizzyingly inventive tale. -- Salon