After debuting in America with her best-selling gritty murder story “Out,” we hadn’t seen much of Natsuo Kirino works since 2007 when another of her savage stories, “Grotesque,” was translated. This summer brings us the latest by the author, the novella “Real World,” which, though shorter than her past two books, is no less enticing or sinister.
Although it’s unfortunate that the latest desolate noir mystery novel by Kirino, “Real World,” shares its title with that MTV show, the likeness thankfully ends there. Instead of making reality seem fictionalized like the never-ending show, the Japanese novelist conjures from her fiction a reality claiming to be rawer than reality itself. What’s great about Kirino is her ability to defy being categorized as either high-brow “literature” or low-brow pulp fiction. Like Banana Yoshimoto before her, she manages to write a pulpy storyline but weave in both a potent literary style and credible themes. For example, while the plot of “Real World” is about four teenage girls in Japan who get caught up in helping one of their neighbors escape after murdering his mother, she incorporates many (very Japanese) themes: desire to escape their routine tedium, personal detachment and the barriers between people, the separation of in-group/out-group, etc.
More specifically it follows high school seniors, Toshiko, Yuzan, Terauchi and Kirarin, each with a stereotypic dynamic, who, for varying personal reasons, aid Toshiko’s neighbor, Worm, escape the police after he randomly kills his mother in an outburst of frustration. Yet things turn grave as the repercussions of their actions resonate more greatly than they had wanted. Despite the pulpiness of it, Kirino manages to maintain enough plausibility to prevent it from becoming a distraction. With simple sentences like “This was like something out of a movie” she, and the character, actually acknowledge that it seems unbelievable, conceding the point to us so we as the readers aren’t groaning over how unbelievable it is. Rather, we trust the story more because it’s engaging our thoughts directly.
In “Real World,” Kirino waxes her cut-and-dried writing style again with clean, concise sentences very much like real thoughts people have — they aren’t embellished, bombastic or overly detailed. In fact, by intentionally keeping certain things vague and opting for selective detail, Kirino furthers a sense of reality and allows the narrative to flow more naturally, especially since it’s in first person. As in “Out,” Kirino’s latest follows each character separately chapter by chapter in first person diary-esque confessions that, by the end, seem more like police reports than personal journals.
The result is a sharp and nervy thriller that exposes the irreparable and desperate nature of each individual’s “real world” stacked against them from the beginning. Kirino gets into the heads of these misanthropic teens and mercilessly forces them to confess their thoughts as they’re pushed into corners, leaving them no choice but to hatefully detach themselves from everyone else, and then even more bitterly realize they must coexist anyway.
Speaking through the murderous neighbor in her book, Kirino also informs us that novels “show you the real world with one layer peeled away, a reality you can’t see otherwise,” as if to say the truth of our existence is always just below the surface, and we’re too numbed or disillusioned to experience it. Kirino crafts an incredibly cynical, yet entirely believable world in which her characters struggle between the impossibility of human connection and the unavoidable coexistence in the “real world” which is really just a charade of masks and compromised desires. And though she’s teasing us by never quite letting us get to know one character too well, the worst part of “Real World” is how short it is.
4 1/2 stars out of 5