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A bento box of horrors

Out: A Novel, Natsuo Kirino , Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, Kodansha International: 360 pp., $22.95

August 24, 2003|Elmer Luke | Elmer Luke is a writer and editor who has worked at publishing houses in Tokyo and New York.

Winner of the 1999 Naoki Prize, Natsuo Kirino is regarded as a "new" writer at age 51. Having made her debut 10 years ago, she has been on a tear since, and "Out," which has been made into a film in Japan, showcases her extraordinary energy no less than her singular perspective on the sour fate of womanhood. Kirino does not toe any strict feminist line; she simply doesn't like being served Japanese leftovers.

While the West has gotten used to the spare fiction of Haruki Murakami, whose characters float in and out of other worlds divining truths and adventure, Kirino's writing is anchored by the concreteness of daily life. There's sweat, there's stink, there's blood, guts and mildew. There's nothing ethereal about it.

Daring and disturbing, "Out" is prepared to push the limits of this world -- not only in violence and sex (of which there are ample doses) but also in human outlook. It leaves you with a dry mouth. It is not so much the murder (which occurs rather matter-of-factly) or the suspense (which carries you along nicely), it is the final bigger picture you're left with.

Yayoi Yamamoto, an attractive young mother of two, works nights at a factory making bento box lunches, saving her earnings for the family as a good woman should. Her husband, besotted with a bar girl, gambles away their bank account to gain the girl's attentions. When Yayoi confronts him, he beats her. She nurses her injuries meekly, but in the sudden fury of a later moment, she strangles him with her belt. Numb, she has no remorse, but it's obvious his body cannot remain in the foyer.

When she confides this horror to Masako Katori, an intrepid co-worker respected by all who know her, her worries are over. Masako mobilizes a ragtag team of three women from the bento factory to remove the body, then slice and saw it into pieces and dispose of it in random garbage pickup spots around the city. The harder to find the evidence, the harder to pin the blame.

Gruesome stuff. And it works -- for the most part.

As the murder investigation unfolds, Masako assumes the responsibility for the coverup. She may be just another worker on the bento-making line, but she has a brain and a fierce sense of self-worth. She is uncowed by authority, police or otherwise. She is intent, for reasons not immediately understandable to herself, on doing this job right. It becomes a point of pride. And it is through Masako's eyes, and heart, that the story is now told.

The decision of Masako and her team to do something so bold -- and criminal -- represents a turning point in their lives. Each woman has been mired in hellish circumstances: a desiccated marriage; faithless daughters who steal; a mean, bedridden mother-in-law; compulsive buying of ersatz designer goods; the burden of loan-shark debt. That's just for starters.

Although they recoil at the task, the women do it, and the deed is perversely freeing, a second chance at life. Yayoi will pay for their assistance, for one thing, and the influx of cash is a transforming moment. It is this theme -- not original, but baldly effective here -- that propels the plot.

Things get complicated when Mitsuyoshi Satake emerges from the shadows of sleazy Kabuki-cho. Satake, who makes his livelihood running gambling and girls, is ironically the victim here, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The murder is pinned on him, and during the time he is held in jail, his small empire is destroyed. Satake determines to exact his revenge, to ruin lives as his has been ruined, and he proceeds, like a master puppeteer, to do precisely that.

The story is told in layers of complexity, at times with "Rashomon" deftness, with a view into personal lives and social dimensions that is both illuminating and unsettling -- not unlike, say, the work of Patricia Highsmith. Kirino's is not the narrative of happy, fulfilled middle-class women: "Once, a while ago, Masako had compared her career to an empty, spinning washing machine.... She could see now why she'd crossed over the line. She hadn't understood that it was despair.... If they came now and arrested her, they'd never be able to find out why she'd done it."

Kirino's depiction of relationships and human needs is unsparing. The weak need help and pity, but they can be despicable. The strong, in their attempt to escape life's dead ends, are tragic, but it is better to be strong. Stupidity is irreversible -- and fatal. So is victimhood. Women in particular have not the luxury of inaction. Society deals them a lousy hand, but if they are to draw even (forget about winning), they must be resolute.

Even within the confines of a murder thriller, Kirino makes these notions clear. "Her face was expressionless ... and she made a point of not turning to look at him.... It made his blood boil, a combination of pure hatred and admiration for her having found a way to make him hate her. He felt dizzy from it."

As the story culminates, the plot goes out on a ledge and the narrative teeters out of control. After all that has come before, this is the least satisfying part. Even so, a reader might know relief -- and pleasure at having spent time with so well-constructed, so remarkable a novel.

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