Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Real World Noir

KIRINO, Natsuo. Real World. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2009. 224p. ISBN 0307387488(pa), $14.00. Trade.

Narrated by five Japanese high school students, the novel Real World introduces a cast of characters connected by the murder of a neighborhood housewife. Of the five high school students, four of them are young women who cope with the crowded suburban society of Tokyo. Their friendships are tested when the fifth narrator, a young man who attends a prestigious high school, commits matricide. Instead of turning the boy – called “Worm” – into the police, the four young women assist him with his escape, providing cell phones and a bike. As the girls get further involved, the stakes get even higher – culminating in a wave of destruction and violence.

Natsuo Kirino, the pseudonym for the Japanese author Mariko Hashioka, is from Ishikawa Prefecture. Her style best described as “feminist noir,” she contributes heavily to Japanese detective fiction. Though few of her novels have been translated into English, her 1997 novel Out won the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction – Japan’s award for the top mystery of the year. Kirino’s other works include 18 novels, four short story collections, and an anthology of essays.

Real World is a postmodern tsunami of a novel that introduces the reader to characters who seem inhuman, or perhaps altogether too human. How could anyone aid and abet a matricidal young man, you wonder? However, Kirino delves into the young women’s personal lives, and shares the pivotal experiences (and often, the accompanying traumas) that have shaped the girls into who they are. While empathy for the murderer, Worm, is reduced by his own self-aggrandizement, the reader realizes that these four girls are driven to assist the narcissistic killer as a strike against a society that doesn’t work for them – a sociopolitical statement about a world that doesn’t provide for their emotional needs as human beings.

Kirino’s novel incorporates issues of gender and lesbian identities, and the urban anomie so essential to noir. While the list of Japanese noir novelists who focus their work on feminist and gender motifs may be somewhat small, similar authors do exist. Shibata Yoshiki is famous for her 'Riko' series, which feature a character that examines female sexuality against a backdrop of detective fiction in novels such as Diana’s Daydream (Publisher: Shinchosha). In addition, Matsuo Yumi examines many of the same motifs in her short story "Murder in Balloon Town" (Dalkey Archive Press).

Given the inherent themes, this novel would be a great addition to any undergraduate Women and/or Gender studies course. The themes are racy enough to prevent their entry into most K-12 educational systems, to the students’ considerable loss. In addition, the urban backdrop would make the novel a strong contributor to an Urban Studies course, as a sociological component to the interdisciplinary field. And of course, the high literary merit of the novel lends itself well to many literature courses.

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