I struggle with myself. On the one hand I want to write a rave review of Grotesque, one that might verge on being fulsome in its praise. On the other hand, I want to red-pencil the book, to trim out the fat I know is there and expose the muscle and heart of a story that has about one hundred percent more, well, story, than it truly needs. But I got here late: I’m a reader and a critic, not an editor, and so I have to take Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque as it stands: a very good book that might well be a great one, barring my quibbles about its length.
Told in an amalgam of first-person confessional, third-party documentation, diary entries and letter-writings, Grotesque deals with a now-middle-aged Japanese woman—never referred to by her first name—who was one of two daughters in a mixed marriage. She is “half”, as they say in Japan. The unpleasant union of her Swiss/Polish father (himself “half”, it seems) and her Japanese mother produced herself and Yuriko—the “monster”, as the narrator calls her, a girl almost too beautiful to be believed. The rift that forms between them soon becomes unbridgeable, and before long the two sisters live entirely disparate lives. One settles into a life of respectable work, a veneer that barely conceals an ocean of rage; the other into prostitution and an early death at the hands of a client.
It’s Yuriko who ends up the prostitute, and if her excerpted diary entries are to be believed, she has embraced that as her karma rather than out of anything practical. She thinks of herself as a “natural-born whore”, a creature of the flesh doomed only to exist in the context of a man’s sexuality. In her purview, it was like that from the beginning, when as a teenager she slept with an adult friend of her father’s. But how much of what she says about herself is real? The book is quite deliberately inconsistent on this point; Yuriko’s own diary entries hint at her sister taking a very different attitude from the one she has professed to have throughout the rest of the book. If indeed the narrator professes such disdain for Yuriko, why does she make such a protracted attempt to analyze and dissect? Presumably because the greatest hypocrisies are the ones we indulge in unthinkingly: if Yuriko’s sister sees herself as the one decent thing in a corrupt world, then in her mind any amount of duplicity to protect that is legitimate, isn’t it? In a lesser book this kind of ambiguity would be maddening, but here it adds that much more creepy weight to the book’s themes, both stated and unstated.
Someone else from the narrator’s past is also murdered—Kazue, a bookish and awkward girl who latched onto the narrator as the one good thing in the in-crowd hell that was their private school. Kazue went on, as we learn, to lead a dual life: an office worker by day, a streetwalker by night. Since none of her “conventional” goals seem realistic, she opts for a kind of stylized self-destruction—something that gives the narrator no end of things to gloat over. These events, it would seem, have provided her with a way to justify all of her suffering, to separate herself all the more not only from her family but from humanity as a whole.
Both women were apparently killed by the same man: a Chinese immigrant named Zhang, who spills out his life story over one long chapter of the book that could easily stand on its own. He insists that he did not kill Kazue, but he fully admits to murdering Yuriko (for what amounted to an insinuation that he had incestuous feelings for his dead sister), and out of the circus of events that unfolds comes another surprise. Yuriko had a son, Yurio, and with Yuriko’s death there is a chance that the narrator may have a chance to raise the boy herself, to steal him away and make him her own. Such a thing would be yet another victory over both biology and society, two decks that she likes to believe were stacked firmly against her.
Grotesque is Natsuo Kirino’s second work translated into English after her groundbreaking Out, which caused a fair stir in both the mystery and translated-fiction circuits. That novel dealt with several Japanese women who take revenge on and dispose of the loan sharks who are making their lives miserable. Predatory money-lending in Japan is a sub-basement industry all its own, and the book used that subject as a doorway through which to peer at several other topics—e.g., the fate of female empowerment in a country still largely geared against such things. Out lent itself to being adapted into a film, and while that did happen the resulting movie was by all accounts a terrible bastardization of the book, junking the grim social insights in favor of cheap black comedy about the weight of dead bodies. An American adaptation that promises to be more faithful to the book—what irony—has been in the works for some time now but still hasn’t materialized. (My fingers remain crossed.)
Grotesque is no less ambitious—if anything, its ambitions are nearly an order of magnitude greater. Kirino’s eyes are wide open to all the things that could be counted amongst her nation’s afflictions—the uneasy relationships between Japanese and foreigners, especially when forcibly related by marriage; the bullying and scapegoating that takes place routinely within even the best schools (and sometimes more so there than anywhere else); the respect for the aged that is now crumbling into indifference and outright contempt; the scorn for immigrants, who take wretched jobs not wanted by locals or drift into crime as a way to fill the gap between them and the rest of society; the merchandising of beauty as a thing in itself rather than an accent to life as it is lived; the sexualization of young people as products to be consumed by the old; the objectification of women, whether by others or by the self; the subjective nature of human truth a la Rashōmon / In a Grove; and far more than can fit comfortably on a book’s flap or even in a review.
These are also, sadly, all the reasons I want to cut the book down. As compelling as Grotesque is in the long run—it’s over five hundred pages and best read in as few sittings as possible for maximum effect—it becomes wearying in the short run(s). The section that features Kazue’s prostitution diaries is, in particular, brutally repetitive: probably not without warrant, but at the same time a little of this goes a long way. Maybe some more creative shuffling and reduction of the elements used would have helped, but at the same time I suspect that would have killed the impact of the book’s best and most sustained attribute: its omnivorousness. There’s an all-devouring intensity to the language and the storytelling that comes through even in the most innocuous moments. More than just about any other book from Japan I’ve read recently, Grotesque recreates within the reader the helplessness in the face of society and the world—and their own biologies and sexual heritages—that cage in the characters themselves.
The book is nominally a thriller—like Kirino’s previous book in English, Out—but is more in the vein of Ryū Murakami’s works of culture criticism via genre fiction. That said, Kirino’s work is far more immediately accessible: she deals with relatively identifiable social types—housewives, mothers, daughters, family men—rather than the out-and-out damage cases and, well, grotesques that populate Murakami’s In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies. This shouldn’t be taken as negative criticism for either of those books or for Murakami generally; it’s just that appreciating Kirino doesn’t require as steep an entrance fee (and doesn’t come at the cost of reading about copious amounts of bodily fluid). It is social dissection of the kind that used to be only seen from the likes of, say, Kenzaburo Oe, at least as far as Japanese literature in translation goes. The field’s broadened, but there’s still a lot missing, partly because (I suspect) of what people on both sides of the Pacific will be suitable for export. What of, for instance, Fūtaro Yamada’s thriller Pleasures of the Flesh [Etsuraku], sporting a tangled plot that would have inspired jealousy from Hitchcock but also a set of themes as angry and radical as any Nagisa Oshima film? Actually, it was an Oshima film, but neither book nor film adaptation have shown up in English yet.
It shouldn’t be hard to see why I found Grotesque so absorbing. Aside from being strong on its own terms, it’s also the sort of book I want to see that much more of from Japan’s trove of current, adventurous authors. Kirino herself is one of them, and there is some irony in that her newest book, Real World (to be reviewed here soon) delivers at least as much of a punch—and as much critical insight—in less than half the page count of Grotesque. Still, no good story is ever too long, and Grotesque enveloped me long enough and often enough to point others towards it—after they pick up Out and Real World, that is.