Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino – review

GROTESQUE by Natsuo Kirino
2007, Vintage, 530 pages, 9781400096596, Trade Paperback, $15.95

Genre: Psychological Fiction

After going through a long phase of reading highly emotional fiction, I was looking for something a little different, perhaps with less tendency to induce anxiety. Granted, I’ve been trying to get through Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, which I honestly don’t find that stressful at all. But it’s slow going, and I just needed something else. Since I’m currently on another Asian storytelling kick, I thought I’d go with one of the Japanese novels waiting on my shelf and chose Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino.

But Grotesque only partially satisfied my needs. On the one hand, it wasn’t nearly as emotional as the other books I’ve been reading. That’s great. That’s what I needed.

But on the other, it was a real downer, and a bit on the abstract side as well, not to mention meandering. Granted, I’ve never read any Japanese fiction that I felt was terribly lighthearted (which is one of the reasons I like it), and quite a bit of Asian fiction in general has a sort of abstractness to it, from my point of view. Kirino’s work tends to defy my standards of linear writing anyway, and I’m fine with that. I loved her book Out, and thoroughly enjoyed Real World as well, but for some reason Grotesque just didn’t hit the mark.

This, from what I’ve gathered, is a general consensus among Kirino fans. So at the very least, I don’t feel like this reaction is coming out of nowhere.

For the most part, this book is a psychological study of four individuals, the narrator who’s never named, her younger sister Yuriko Hirata, their schoolmate Kazue Sato, and Zhang, the man who kills Yuriko and (probably) Kazue. (These aren’t spoilers, as those two characters are dead from the beginning of the story.)

As a study of these four individuals, the book is very good, and depending on your tastes, quite affecting. It speaks to women in Japanese society, the expectations placed on them, and the ways in which they can subvert the system in small, sometimes self-destructive, ways. It uses women with different backgrounds, different levels of intelligence, different ages, and different levels of “beauty” to get these concepts across, and it does it very well.

What it reveals, unfortunately, is oppressive and utterly cynical. That in itself isn’t a reason for me to dislike the book–a heavy dose of naked reality isn’t enjoyable, but it’s neither the first nor the last time I’ll experience that kind of discomfort from a book. No, the difficult part in reading this novel is that each and every character in the story is so utterly unlikable. Frankly put, every character is a horrible person. A really horrible, disgusting person.

Again, horrible characters are par for the course. I’m fine with that, and generally speaking, I even like it now and again. But for every character in the story to be so terrible, and to have nothing about them that could redeem them in my eyes, well–like I said, the book was a real downer. I left this story feeling overwhelmed by the awfulness of humanity and the lengths to which people will go to delude themselves.

Because not only are the characters horrible, but they’re also highly unreliable narrators. Each of these people thinks of herself (or himself, in the case of Zhang) as this wonderful individual who has just seen some bad times, who can’t catch a break, who is overshadowed by others, or who people just don’t understand. They’re all the best, of course, and everyone else is the worst.

Is this like reality? Yeah, a little too much. Which is probably why the story made me so uncomfortable.

The lack of reliability, while interesting, means that no real answers are offered in this book. In addition to the main narration of the novel, we also have diary entries from Yuriko, Kazue, and Zhang. Each of these stories, in conjunction with the narrator’s is contradictory in some fashion.

In addition, there doesn’t seem to be any real end game to the plot. Initially, the reader will go in thinking that the goal is to discover whether Zhang really did kill Yuriko and Kazue, and what his motivation was for those acts. But ultimately the questions of whether he did it and, if so, why, are irrelevant. You only find out for certain that he killed Yuriko, which is no surprise since he’s charged for it at the beginning of the novel. You find out why he did it, as well, but since all of the narratives in the story are so different, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’s being honest or not.

The most unreliable person in this story is, I believe, the narrator. True, most of the other characters have deep delusions about themselves–Yuriko being possibly the most honest of the bunch–but the narrator seems to tell the reader exactly what she wants them to know about her while hiding all of the other aspects of herself. This becomes evident when reading Yuriko and Kazue’s diaries, and seeing some of her later interaction with Mitsuru. These two characters mention other instances of the narrator’s behavior that don’t seem to jive with the woman’s narrative of herself. They also discuss her deep inferiority complex, which the narrator would have just put off as hatred toward her monstrously beautiful sister.

If anything, I thought this was one of the more interesting aspects of the story. True, you have to read through quite a lot, including Zhang’s mind-numbing confession, to find these moments, but even so I felt they were worth the wait. You can see the narrator’s lies reflected in the lies she tells Yurio at the end of the book, including lying about what she looks like and about what kind of person his mother, Yuriko, was.

The end of the book is unclear as to whether the narrator takes up a life of prostitution like her sister in order to support her nephew Yurio, or whether she is simply fantasizing about that life. Either way, it’s an interesting turnaround for the character, who hates men and has never wanted anything to do with them (although, honestly, I think she just hates people as a whole).

Overall, it’s an interesting read, but I didn’t feel anything in particular at the end of the book except for a sense of gloominess. You’ll be interested in this book if you’re a fan of Natsuo Kirino, or if you like character studies. But as a general read, it’s not something I would recommend to the average person.

More like this:

Real World by Natsuo Kirino – review
Zoo by Otsuichi – review
Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi – review

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One response to “Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino – review

  1. It sounds like a meandering think piece. I don’t particularly enjoy gloomy. I’m wondering whether or not the author wrote this for herself more than for her audience. Writing about the wicked and depraved and about those who do wrong is so fascinating and stimulating. Just a thought. I just found a horrible story I wrote in the 7th grade on the back of a postcard about a girl who kills herself. I was a really happy kid and it was jarring to find…hehe.

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