Nearly done with Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes. One thing that I think is striking about the novel is how realistic Abe makes the surreal situation. When Junpei escapes, we feel the sand in his shoes, we see the dim lights in the distance. When he returns to the hole, Abe even mentions a couple of spiders in the corner, along with the fuzzy darkness, the feel of the rope on his hands, and so on.
Although the novel is obviously an intellectual exercise, this grounding in reality also forces us to consider it as a novel, not just as a philosophical essay disguised as a story. But I'm not really sure it succeeds as a novel; I've found that the middle section really drags a bit (although it could be my Japanese slowing me down too much).
Junpei is mostly an annoying character, which makes it hard to see him as an avatar of the reader. I think this is a big lack, because it becomes tempting to say, "well, that's not what I would do," and cutting short the whole introspective process. I think that Abe's Box Man is more successful in this respect. The box man is so outre, but at the same time so blank, that it becomes easier to project into him at the beginning. The eponymous woman is so passive that we feel sorry for her, but it becomes hard to empathize with her. When I talk to Jenna about the book, she keeps asking if the woman escapes, and it's a natural question; it's much harder to read about a character who's not even interested in talking about escape. (She's not exactly opposed, she cooperates with the man in his attempts to win freedom, but she's not herself actively interested in pursuing it)
I'll move on to the final section in a couple of weeks, and think about the book as a whole then.