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.

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