Crime novel has gender issues
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
Translated by Rebecca Copeland
Random House, 467 pp
Natsuo Kirino burst onto the English-language literary scene in 2003 with the publication of Out, a story of the murder of an abusive husband by his wife and the subsequent dismemberment of the body.
Late last year, there was a gruesome killing in an apartment in the Tokyo neighborhood where I live, in which a wife allegedly murdered and dismembered her husband in a scenario that was eerily similar to the plot of Out.
I don't know if the woman in question had ever read the novel, but the adage that life imitates art has rarely been so uncannily apt. After my initial, slightly ghoulish interest in the premise of Out was satisfied, the rest of the story offered a fascinating insight into contemporary Japanese life.
In Out, Kirino employs a linear narrative with the plot thickening at a rapid pace to maintain the reader's attention throughout the book's 520 pages.
Grotesque has the same epic proportions as Out, though this time the plot unfolds through successive accounts by the book's main characters, with an unnamed female narrator linking them all together.
This technique is reminiscent of The Jewel in the Crown, the first volume of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, in which the events surrounding the alleged rape of Daphne Manners in British India are told hrough the eyes of various key characters.
And as in Scott's novel, though the details of the murders in Grotesque are described, there is no dramatic revelation to round things off at the end, as one might find in conventional Agatha Christie-style crime thrillers.
But that does not detract from the tension or the enjoyment of the book. The reader is given a thorough outline of the circumstances and offered the chance to draw one's own conclusions.
The narrator is the older sister of Yuriko Hirata, a full-time prostitute, and was a friend of Kazue Sato, a part-time streetwalker, both of whom are murdered in Tokyo, possibly by the same man.
She sets the scene by announcing that she and her sister have a Japanese mother and a Swiss father, and her description of her mother as "a born loser" and her father as "miserly" in the first six pages indicates that this woman doesn't pull any punches.
She goes on to describe her sister as a "monster," before telling the reader that she was murdered two years ago. Clearly, there's not much sisterly love in this family, and she's definitely not out to win any popularity contests.
The narrator, Yuriko, Kazue and another friend of the narrator, Mitsuru, all attended the same school. Kirino develops their personalities very effectively, going some way toward explaining the isolation that all of them suffer in their lives.
And isolation is a thread of the novel. There are many cases where characters are seen as outsiders, whether it's reactions to the sisters' half-Japanese, half-Swiss features; Kazue's unpopularity at her company; or, as Yuriko writes in her journals, her realization that her beauty is not the key to happiness, but merely a route into the world's oldest profession.
Not that she's a reluctant participant. When she writes, "For a nymphomaniac like myself, I suppose there could be no job more suitable than prostitution; it is my God-given destiny," she admits that her fate is out of her hands. Her statement could be read as a death wish or a prophecy.
Kirino goes into great detail to weave a web of characters that crop up throughout the novel, sometimes in remarkably coincidental situations, such as when the narrator encounters Mitsuru, among other people, at the accused murderer's trial.
There are few redeeming traits in almost any of the main characters--not that this is a negative aspect of the book. The narrator's cold manner in describing events allows the letters, journals and statements to develop a rounded plotline that, ultimately, gives the reader an understanding of the selfish modern Japanese society that may have contributed to the events she describes.
Kazue's journals reveal her meticulous eye for detail, such as details of her nocturnal financial transactions, as well as her bitterness at her situation.
And like the narrator and Yuriko, she has a low opinion of men. This aspect of Kirino's prose permeates the pages, leading this male reader to ask whether Grotesque is a vehicle for radical feminism or an indictment of men who use prostitutes.
The narrator describes men as "sneaky" and "boorish" while Yuriko says, "I hate men, but I love sex," and Kazuo talks of her conflicting emotions that accompanied her thoughts of men, "desire and disgust."
The accused's statement goes into great detail and paints a picture of a man who overcomes hardship and tragedy to achieve his goal. Unfortunately, at a time when foreigners are often reflexively blamed for Japan's crime problems, it doesn't help when this stereotype is compounded in Grotesque.
Aside from this, Grotesque is an impressive follow-up to Out. Readers who enjoyed that novel will find this one a challenging read that is compelling, if a little elongated.
Ultimately, Kirino's textured plot, which extends far beyond the the scope of a crime thriller, and her distinctive narrative tone succeed in digging deep into the psyche of the book's main characters while also raising questions about the role of women in modern Japanese society.