Thursday, December 29, 2016

Natsuo Kirino, Out (1997)

Merry Christmas an' Happy New Year.  Here's some contemporary Japanese noir.  Weirdly enough, it's also the second novel called "Out" I've read this year. What does that mean? Not a whole lot.

There are four friends, who work the night shift at a factory manufacturing boxed lunches: Kuniko, self-conscious about her weight, drowning in debt from her efforts to fill the holes with expensive things; Yayoi, beautiful but in a terrible marriage with an abusive, philandering man; Yoshie, older, widowed, trying to cope with her ancient, demanding mother-in-law and her ungrateful teenage daughter; and Masako, outwardly the most together of the four but nonetheless stuck in totally indifferent non-relationships with her husband and son. One night, Yayoi impulsively murders her husband and then calls on the other three to help her cover it up. What transpires is a conventional yet effective noir-type story, as their efforts become more and more complicated and threaten to fall apart. However, that's not all; as it reaches its climax, the novel becomes something quite different--a strange, psychosexual cat-and-mouse story. It's that ending that's controversial, and with good reason, but I'll get to that momentarily.

First, I want to note how very effective the novel is as a social critique, of Japan specifically and late capitalism in general--something that may well have increased relevance. I don't really know what the mood of post-bubble Japan is like, but its depiction here certainly rings true. All of the characters are completely alienated: their relationships with their families and partners range from indifferent to hateful, as they frantically try to stay afloat financially. The fact that they work nights--making them not only figuratively but also literally out-of-step with society drives this home. This spills over to other characters, too: the loan shark who always flits from one thing to another and who is only attracted to high school girls with whom he can't have (and doesn't want to have) any kind of meaningful relationship; the ex-con who is totally sexually dysfunctional in a gruesome, American-Psycho-esque way; the Japanese-Brazilian worker who, in spite of being a Japanese citizen, is forever outside the culture by virtue of not looking sufficiently Japanese and struggling with the language. It's all very well done, and Kirino is quite capable of just sort of casually throwing in the odd acute psycholgical insight.

It is a compelling read, of that there is no doubt. But as I noted above, the climax may or may not work for you. Spoilerish things follow: so the aforementioned ex-con, Satake, wants revenge on Masako for ruining his businesses, but that's not all he wants. He perceives in her the opportunity at last to have the kind of extreme, sadomasochistic moment that he once had before--which he went to prison for. Well you might think, where exactly does this come from? And even weller you might think, what the fuck is this bullshit where Masako on some level feels the urge to go along with him? Grrr! Still, we can maybe at least try to think of it in terms of the themes running through the novel. I do have to admit, Masako's sort-of cooperation is a definite flaw in the novel; it's not psychologized remotely adequately, and it really does seem lurid for its own sake. Still, if we can look past that, is it not perhaps the case that this really is the ultimate embodiment of the alienation that the novel so effectively depicts? Being so completely outside the norm (you will note the first syllable of "outside") that the only way to achieve any kind of human connection is literally through death? Hmm! Good times, great oldies. I often stick in a non-sequitur like that when I'm not sure how to conclude a thought.

Kirino has published several dozen novels, but only four have been translated into English. A shame, really; Out is very good, and if the bulk of her output is on the same level, I'd say she definitely deserves to be better-known.


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