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