This is the story of a diary. The sister who reads it is still alive and the sister who wrote it has been murdered on the back-alleys of Tokyo while living the life of a prostitute. Embark in a thrilling ride to find who the killer was and how you can slide to the darkest pits of life in just half a lifetime.
I bought Grotesque because the cover appealed to me. The title, not so much. I haven’t read anything by Natsuo Kirino before and since this book, I’ve read OUT and REAL WORLD.
I loved this book. I know my tastes are odd if I enjoy reading a retelling of a descent to the lowest margins of the society as seen through the eyes of the self-righteous sister who is still alive, a naive young girls’s diary, police reports and third party interventions.
The road to the back-alleys is easy. You need to be born pretty, have a taste for male affections, love sex and not care much about your own body. You get to be a luxury call girl, a praised woman of the night and as you get older, you get to be happy if you have the occasional client that will pay for you. Unless you get killed by then.
The book was class A reading material. I would recommend it to all parents who have issues with their teenager daughters acting out. And also to all teenagers who think that the easy life sponsored by a “sugar daddy” is the way to go to success.
Told in an amalgam of first-person confessional, third-party documentation, diary entries and letter-writings, Grotesque deals with a now-middle-aged Japanese woman — never referred to by her first name — who was one of two daughters in a mixed marriage. She is “half”, as they say in Japan. The unpleasant union of her Swiss/Polish father (himself “half”, it seems) and her Japanese mother produced herself and Yuriko — the “monster”, as the narrator calls her, a girl almost too beautiful to be believed. The rift that forms between them soon becomes unbridgeable, and before long the two sisters live entirely disparate lives. One settles into a life of respectable work, a veneer that barely conceals an ocean of rage; the other into prostitution and an early death at the hands of a client.
It’s Yuriko who ends up the prostitute, and if her excerpted diary entries are to be believed, she has embraced that as her karma rather than out of anything practical. She thinks of herself as a “natural-born whore”, a creature of the flesh doomed only to exist in the context of a man’s sexuality. In her purview, it was like that from the beginning, when as a teenager she slept with an adult friend of her father’s. But how much of what she says about herself is real?
The book is quite deliberately inconsistent on this point; Yuriko’s own diary entries hint at her sister taking a very different attitude from the one she has professed to have throughout the rest of the book. If indeed the narrator professes such disdain for Yuriko, why does she make such a protracted attempt to analyze and dissect?
Presumably because the greatest hypocrisies are the ones we indulge in unthinkingly: if Yuriko’s sister sees herself as the one decent thing in a corrupt world, then in her mind any amount of duplicity to protect that is legitimate, isn’t it? In a lesser book this kind of ambiguity would be maddening, but here it adds that much more creepy weight to the book’s themes, both stated and unstated.
Someone else from the narrator’s past is also murdered — Kazue, a bookish and awkward girl who latched onto the narrator as the one good thing in the in-crowd hell that was their private school. Kazue went on, as we learn, to lead a dual life: an office worker by day, a streetwalker by night. Since none of her “conventional” goals seem realistic, she opts for a kind of stylized self-destruction — something that gives the narrator no end of things to gloat over. These events, it would seem, have provided her with a way to justify all of her suffering, to separate herself all the more not only from her family but from humanity as a whole.
Both women were apparently killed by the same man: a Chinese immigrant named Zhang, who spills out his life story over one long chapter of the book that could easily stand on its own. He insists that he did not kill Kazue, but he fully admits to murdering Yuriko (for what amounted to an insinuation that he had incestuous feelings for his dead sister), and out of the circus of events that unfolds comes another surprise. Yuriko had a son, Yurio, and with Yuriko’s death there is a chance that the narrator may have a chance to raise the boy herself, to steal him away and make him her own. Such a thing would be yet another victory over both biology and society, two decks that she likes to believe were stacked firmly against her.
Grotesque is Natsuo Kirino’s second work translated into English after her groundbreaking Out, which caused a fair stir in both the mystery and translated-fiction circuits.
Grotesque is no less ambitious — if anything, its ambitions are nearly an order of magnitude greater.
Kirino’s eyes are wide open to all the things that could be counted amongst her nation’s afflictions — the uneasy relationships between Japanese and foreigners, especially when forcibly related by marriage; the bullying and scapegoating that takes place routinely within even the best schools (and sometimes more so there than anywhere else); the respect for the aged that is now crumbling into indifference and outright contempt; the scorn for immigrants, who take wretched jobs not wanted by locals or drift into crime as a way to fill the gap between them and the rest of society; the merchandising of beauty as a thing in itself rather than an accent to life as it is lived; the sexualization of young people as products to be consumed by the old; the objectification of women, whether by others or by the self; the subjective nature of human truth a la Rashōmon / In a Grove; and far more than can fit comfortably on a book’s flap or even in a review.
These are also, sadly, all the reasons I want to cut the book down. As compelling as Grotesque is in the long run — it’s over five hundred pages and best read in as few sittings as possible for maximum effect — it becomes wearying in the short run(s). The section that features Kazue’s prostitution diaries is, in particular, brutally repetitive: probably not without warrant, but at the same time a little of this goes a long way. Maybe some more creative shuffling and reduction of the elements used would have helped, but at the same time I suspect that would have killed the impact of the book’s best and most sustained attribute: its omnivorousness.
There’s an all-devouring intensity to the language and the storytelling that comes through even in the most innocuous moments. More than just about any other book from Japan I’ve read recently, Grotesque recreates within the reader the helplessness in the face of society and the world — and their own biologies and sexual heritages — that cage in the characters themselves.