Real World

real-world3

Tile: Real World
Japanese Title: リアル ワールド (Riaru wārudo
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 208

Having already reviewed Rebecca Copeland’s translation of Grotesque, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and write an entry for Philip Gabriel’s new translation of Kirino Natsuo’s novel Real World. Real World is not as long or as grand of a story as Grotesque; and, as a result, it is much less intense. I would argue, however, that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Grotesque is extremely graphic and upsetting for hundreds of pages. Real World is about 250 pages shorter, less graphic, and less upsetting. That being said, it is an extraordinarily dark novel, and just as heartbreaking as Out and Grotesque.

Fans of fragmented narratives will appreciate the structure of Real World, which is divided into eight different chapters, each narrated by a different character. The characters in question are Worm, an underachieving student at an elite high school who “snaps” and murders his mother, and a group of four high school girls who help him run from the law. Of these five characters, Worm is the least interesting. Yuzan is a lesbian from the wrong side of the tracks who has tried to find love in Tokyo but failed, leaving her disillusioned with life. Kirarin is a perfect princess in school but leads a shady side life of compensated dating in Tokyo. Terauchi is smart kid with a bright future, but she has been deeply scarred by her mother’s extramarital affair. The “main” narrator, who narrates the first and last of the eight chapters, is Ninna Hori. Ninna is perhaps the most normal of the five, but she too is more than a little jaded with the social roles she is expected to fill, and her comments about herself and her friends are full of insight. She is also the only character left to pick up the pieces at the end of the novel.

I found Real World to be not only an engrossing read but also a refreshing look into Japanese youth culture, which is so often glimpsed through rose-tinted anime sunglasses in America. Being a high school student is no more glamorous in Japan than it is in America, and Japanese students have just as many problems as America students (and perhaps more). Moreover, Japan is not just a country of cherry blossoms and vermillion torii gates but also of ugly convenience stores and crappy train station cram schools. Kirino’s novel is superlatively anti-romantic. Please don’t let the topic of high school students allow you to think for a moment that Real World is a novel for kids; it doesn’t get much more “adult” than this. Each narrative voice is realistic, mature, and fully-realized, and, even though the subject matter is undeniably gloomy, the quality of Kirino’s writing (and Gabriel’s translation) makes this book and extremely interesting and enjoyable read.

Grotesque

Title: Grotesque
Japanese Title: グロテスク
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Pages:467

First of all, I would like to say that Grotesque is a very, very dark novel. It’s also filled with descriptions of all sorts of physical and emotional abuse, as well as numerous scenes of disgusting, extremely upsetting sex. In short, this novel is not for the faint of heart.

The novel essentially consists of the nameless narrator’s account of the murder of her younger sister, Yuriko, and her pseudo-friend from high school, Kazue, each of whom were marred by deep psychological imperfections. These emotional deficiencies were exacerbated by the harsh and competitive nature of the exclusive private high school that the two attended. In the end, both Yuriko and Kazue became prostitutes and were both ultimately murdered by the same unsavory client.

Putting the sensationalism of the novel aside, perhaps the most chilling aspect of Grotesque is the voice of the narrator. The reader quickly becomes inured to the sex and violence, but the cold and bitter tone of the narrator, as well as her pronounced disgust with her fellow human beings, continue to add a tinge of horror to the novel until the very last page. The narrator occasionally interrupts herself to present “evidence” concerning the two murder cases: the diary of her sister, the testimony of the murder suspect, and a letter from her old classmate. These stories within the story allow the reader to experience the voices of the novel’s other main characters, each of whom is just as disturbing as the main narrator.

In America, Kirino is mainly known for her first translated work, a massive chunk of a murder novel called Out (アウト, translated by Stephen Snyder). Like Out, Grotesque is long and depressing, and it would be a stretch to call any of the characters sympathetic. Unlike Out, however, Grotesque has a much smoother style, courtesy of translator Rebecca Copeland, and is therefore much easier to read. Also, compared to Out, the characters of Grotesque are much more artistically presented. Namely, in this novel, Kirino chooses to explore her characters’ depravity instead of merely wallowing in it. Moreover, I found the portion of the book that concerns the narrators’ experiences at their high school to be extremely entertaining. As I said earlier, Grotesque is not for the squeamish, but those readers who can deal with the darkness will be pleased to find an occasional glimmer of good writing and entrancing character study.

I should note that the version of Grotesque I reviewed is the British version, which I purchased in Japan. The American version of the book has been edited to remove all references to male child prostitution. Don’t let this deter you from reading the novel, though – the passages that were cut aren’t particularly riveting or important.