The premise of Kobe Abé’s 1964 novel is that an ordinary guy wanders into the sand dunes near the ocean and ends up trapped with a woman in a deep hole in the sand. Life at the bottom of the hole consists entirely of digging their house out of the ever-blowing, ever-accumulating sand. Every night, when it’s cool enough to work, they dig. During the day they sleep.
A simpler metaphor for the existential tenet that life is pointlessness outside of the meaning humans give it is hard to find. The man’s outer struggle to escape his material conditions and the parallel inner struggle to understand and find meaning in this life form the rest of the book. The story’s leisurely pace is contrasted with the drama of his inner life.
Reading The Woman in the Dunes was not an escape from my life; instead it asked me to consider the meaning of my life and, perhaps, make a decision about it. Or, put another way, Abé suggests that every action we take — whether to prepare food or watch TV or take a walk or talk to someone or nap — is a decision about the meaning and worth of life.