March 17, 2008


Natsuo Kirino, 2003

Someday I will review Kirino's Out on this blog, which was pure brilliance on many levels. Grotesque, which I think is only the second of her novels to be translated into English, isn't quite the dazzling tour de force of the other book, but still has a lot going for it.

As in Out, Kirino here focuses on women's roles in contemporary Japan. She casts a wide net, but particularly investigates the culture of elite private schools and the psychological dynamics of prostitution. Yes, there is certainly a lurid side to these topics, but the treatment isn't particularly exploitative.

In fact, a little more exploitation might have been welcome, in a way. From time to time, characters come across as mere archetypes - stand-ins for ideas like you might find in a morality play. This wouldn't be so distracting in itself, except that it keeps bumping up against the gritty naturalism and twisted psychology that make up the rest of the novel. A recipe for cognitive dissonance that may be an artifact of translation, for all I know.

Kirino is at her best here when using the trappings of the crime story and the desperation of her characters to frame her sociological insights. The nameless narrator whose voice we follow throughout most of the text, is a richly-drawn and highly memorable character - full of human contradictions which reveal themselves bit by bit. Her attempts to make sense out of her own childhood, and the murders of her sister and schoolmate, are riveting.

So many details of place, character, and situation are vividly and poetically drawn, including a mid-book excursion into the lives of illegal Chinese immigrants in Japan, making the work easy to admire and hard to forget. I think it would have benefitted from an astute editor, however. I get the impression that the author was having trouble thinking of a good way to end the book, and at some point decided to pull out the old "this is all really a meditation on the nature of truth" trick. So fragments of the story told from points of view other than the main narrator, which seemed like tools of exposition and characterization when first read, are retroactively elevated to something more metaphysical. It's entirely possible that this was what Kirino had in mind all along, and it was just poorly executed, but to me it came off as a cheap trick, so the drama set into motion wouldn't need to be resolved on its own terms.

Flawed, but full of greatness, I still recommend taking the time to read this one.

March 12, 2008

Whitman on Craigslist

I was reading some Walt Whitman last night, as I often do, and this gem struck me as being evocative of personals ads:

Among the men and women, the multitude,
I perceive one picking me out by secret and divine signs,
Acknowledging none else—not parent, wife, husband, brother, child, any nearer than I am;
Some are baffled—But that one is not—that one knows me.

Ah, lover and perfect equal!
I meant that you should discover me so, by my faint indirections;
And I, when I meet you, mean to discover you by the like in you.

March 07, 2008

Podcast Adulation II

Black Jack Justice
produced by Decoder Ring Theatre

Since I've started taking a longish train commute every day, I've become a rather avid devourer of podcasts. Reading on the train is great too, but on days when I have only gotten a few hours of sleep (far too many days), it's nice to be able to rest my eyes and just listen. Since a large portion of my ride is underground, music sometimes gets swamped (or at least the subtleties of it do, and I like the subtleties) by ambient noises, and rather than enjoy it in a John Cage way, I'd rather listen to some people talking for a while.

Which brings me to radio play podcasts. If you've read here a while, you know I'm a fan of the hard-boiled detective fiction, and it probably won't surprise you to know that I like listening to old radio serials from the 40s and early 50s - Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, et al. Really fun and excellent stuff, and the podcast medium is quite perfectly suited for it.

There are a small number of groups out there performing new radio plays for podcast, but by far my favorite is Black Jack Justice, produced by a Canadian outfit called Decoder Ring Theatre. It's a detective show in 30-minute self-contained episodes, centering around private eye partners named Jack Justice and Trixie Dixon, who investigate the seamy underbelly of midcentury Toronto.

For me, the tone is pitch-perfect. If you've ever heard the later Sam Spade broadcasts done on NBC radio in the 50s, you'll recognize the combination of pulpy action, broad but wry humor, winking self-awareness, and attention to character. I'm impressed with how very few stylistic accomodations need to be made for this format and style to fit contemporary understandings of gender roles, the social contract, etc.

The writing is ridiculously sharp throughout - obviously someone's labor of love - in plot arc, character development, dramatic pacing, and fast-paced witty dialogue. The actors really strike the perfect tenor for this kind of endeavor too, playing it just larger-than-life enough without going into the kind of self-mockery that can ruin enjoyment. Voice acting is a real lost art, and it's great to see it making a comeback in this new medium.

Tremendously entertaining stuff, which you should give a listen to on their website, or get from itunes.

March 01, 2008


I have a daughter in grammar school, which means I have been exposed to the unstoppable pop-cultural juggernaut that is the Disney "High School Musical" franchise. One day, when cultural theorists are dissecting it (and yes, that day will come), I hope they take some time to notice this part of High School Musical 2:

I Don't Dance

It's one of the weaker numbers as far as the music and dancing go, but it's my favorite because of its wonderfully unabashed depiction of a homoerotic seduction. Yes I'm aware that there's the long-standing popular conception that musicals are always "gay," and yes there is a long tradition of thinly-veiled homoeroticism in the American musical (among lots of other kinds of theater), but this is Disney! This is aimed at pre-teens. This is one of the most wildly popular bits of youth culture in the landscape right now.

And it would scarcely be gayer if the jock character were singing "I Don't Have Sex with Dudes" instead.

I have to applaud the producers and writers and everyone involved, because they got about as far as they possibly could get without having two teenage boys kiss on screen (Give them time - maybe they can work it into the next sequel). A young generation is being exposed to some of the dynamics and tropes at play for queer teenagers, and it's all set to a funky beat. Thanks, mighty Disney Corporation!