Grotesque, by Natuso Kirino

Grotesque cvr

Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino, author of Out is structured as a series of first-person narratives with changing narrators, some direct, others in the form of journal entries of the elaborated sort rarely found in real life.  Contributors are mainly an unnamed woman, plus her sister Yuriko Hirata and school friend Kazue Satō, the last two of whom had worked as prostitutes and been murdered within a year of each other.  The chief suspect, Zhang, a Chinese illegal immigrant who is accused of murdering both women, and who admits to murdering Yuriko but not Kazue, is also afforded a lengthy statement.  All three women had attended a prestigious educational institution.  Rather than cohering to present a rounded portrait, all the narrators, whose accounts intersect, are unreliable, necessitating the reader to evaluate their truthfulness against each other.

The main narrator is considered physically plain, whereas her younger sister Yuriko was so beautiful it seemed unnatural.  The elder harbours a lifelong resentment, not helped by having worked hard to enter the elite Q School, while Yuriko is able to coast because of her looks.  Once there, Yuriko becomes the standard by which her sister is judged and found wanting, rather than acknowledged for her intelligence.  Perhaps in defence, the older sister dismisses Yuriko as unintelligent, a verdict not born out by the quality of the writing in her journal.  Even so, harbouring nymphomaniac desires, Yuriko begins selling sex at school, and eventually drops out of education, becoming a high-class hooker who as time progresses finds that her desirability has a short shelf life, forcing her ever further downwards as her looks coarsen.  Despite an intense dislike for Yuriko, after her death her sister adopts her blind son Yurio, who appears to be as self-centred as his mother had been.  Possessing Yurio is a final victory over her sister.

Kazue is shown as a striver at school but an object of derision by her peers.  Her self-esteem issues manifest as lifelong anorexia, a way to exercise control over her environment.  Despite her best efforts she will still never fit in, and her strained efforts are contrasted with that of a more accomplished student, Mitsuru.  Kazue’s attempts take on the character of eccentricity and this continues after school.  She simultaneously holds down a job as a middle manager in a design and engineering firm while working as a prostitute, her behaviour in both spheres becoming increasingly erratic.  Bizarrely she uses her status as an analyst in a prestigious company as a selling point in her prostitute role, showing her business card to punters and boasting of her position.  Clearly blackmail is not a problem in Japan (another question her behaviour raises is how she lasted so long at her firm without being fired when she admits to spending all day cutting out newspaper articles, when not snoozing in a vacant meeting room).

Zhang’s section recounts his life in China, his escape to Japan with his sister, with whom he had an incestuous relationship, and her death, then his life on the margins in Japan.  Existence for peasants in rural China is shown to be hard, and prospects little better for them in the cities.  As with other accounts this is shown to be not necessarily accurate: his alleged closeness to his sister is belied by her abandonment of him, and the later possibility that he murdered her is floated.

Yuriko’s sister manages her relationship with the world by despising people, including, by her willingness to manipulate, the reader – it is worth bearing in mind that she has curated the accounts that make up the book, and is always quick to undermine them when the content doesn’t suit her.  The only person she seems to be tolerant of is her grandfather, though her liking of him is bound up with wanting to stay in the flat to which he has the lease, and she is quick to put him in a home when he becomes senile; not much sign of the famed Japanese reverence for the elderly on show here (the grandfather had fallen in with Mitsuru’s mother, who owned a bar, and he had sold off his prized bonsai trees to fund his new social life – the traditional ways cannot compete with the attractions of modernity).  Nor is she particularly hostile towards Zhang, rather fascinated by him.  She detests her sister, and her determination to define herself against Yuriko is expressed in her claim to still be a virgin at 40, but her obsession with Yuriko is a weakness which undermines her own self-worth as she continues to measure herself against her sibling.  The novel concludes with her fantasising about becoming a prostitute in turn, reasoning that women turn to prostitution through hatred of the world, in which case it would only be an expression of her standard view of others.

The book explores themes of a woman’s place in what is still a male-dominated, hierarchical system, and how women must accommodate to a male system in order to survive, whether at work or in the sex trade.  As Yuriko and Kazue age they fall further down the ladder of desirability until they are reduced to standing in the street, a trajectory Kazue embraces as her fate.  But Kirino also looks at how this environment affects women’s attitudes towards other women.  Ideology works by pitting the repressed against each other in order to preserve the privileges of the powerful, so the women are generally dreadful to each other instead of understanding that they have common interests against their oppression.  The girls at Q School show no solidarity, instead having a strict pecking order amounting to a caste system, bulwarked by extensive bullying.  They are divided into the insiders – self-assured and from rich families, from fashionable parts of town and generally pupils at the school from the time they were small – and the rest, the outsiders.  However much the latter might want to become the former, even if highly talented, they will never be able to bridge the divide (the narrator, living in municipal housing in a down-at-heel area, has no chance).  Despite the stereotype of the coy modest Japanese woman this is a highly sexualised society (think Hentai, selling used underwear and groping on trains, not to mention the paedophilic schoolgirl fetish).  Even in the house the situation for women is no better, with stay-at-home mothers despised for weakness and made to feel their powerlessness by the rest of the family.

Often considered culturally sophisticated by observers, Japanese society on this evidence is rigid, dysfunctional and misogynistic.  There is no escape; Mitsuru, the most intelligent and able of them all, but an outsider, becomes a doctor but goes to prison for terrorism while a member of a cult, and ends by marrying her old biology teacher, himself disgraced and having had to resign from Q School because his son had become Yuriko’s pimp (it was the teacher who had managed to get Yuriko admitted to the school as part of an experiment to see what effect she would have on the student body, an act he comes to regret).  Biology is destiny in Japan, it seems, and women have the cards stacked against them.  The elder sister herself, perpetually angry with the world, ends up in a series of unfulfilling jobs.  Not one woman in the novel does well, whatever her talents.  Some of the blame for the failure of the women to fulfil their potential is laid at the door of the education system and its propensity to damage genuine relationships.  Adding to the complication is the fact that Yuriko and her sister are mixed race, or ‘halves’, with a Japanese mother and Swiss father.  This affords them a degree of exoticism but also makes them quasi-outsiders in their own country which harbours a marked degree of xenophobia.  When his business fails the father moves back to Switzerland with their mother, who shortly afterwards commits suicide.  Typically Yuriko’s sister is indifferent to the act.

What poses initially as a crime novel and then supposedly an exploration of why respectable women would become prostitutes is in fact a satire on society that eschews the conventional trappings of the crime genre (we never learn who killed Kazue, assuming it wasn’t Zhang, but it doesn’t matter, the crucial thing is she was murdered).  While fooling themselves of their importance, men too are relatively powerless, resulting in a feeling of anomie pervading and subverting a social order that only appears poised on the surface.  Prostitution is shown to be a false mechanism for female empowerment as it works within a patriarchal system that prizes youth and beauty, yet in some sense all women must prostitute themselves to survive.  Kirino has written a rich but profoundly pessimistic book.

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