THE juxtaposition of the words "Japan" and "sex" inevitably conjures up images of a buttoned-up salaryman lavishing gifts on a teenager in enjo kosai, or "assisted dating"; ignoring his wife at home, he visits a sex club and buries his head in explicit manga or buys a schoolgirl's used underthings from a vending machine. The news is everywhere: Japanese men have double lives! They go crazy for sex tourism! Half have paid for sex!
Unmentioned in these stories, of course, is the woman being paid. But that's to be expected. Sex workers are fantasized about, talked about and argued over, but, Jenna Jameson and the occasional World Health Organization report aside, rarely heard from. In books and movies, call girls and strippers pop up as a lazy way of signaling male vice (think Tony Soprano's Bada Bing club) or are employed as shorthand for female degradation without the pesky problem of character development. (It's been a long time since "Klute.") Somehow a hero's "universal" existential crisis tends to eclipse creative possibilities for how a woman might experience depravity in a way that wouldn't involve giving comfort to a string of Mr. Lonelyhearts.
Natsuo Kirino's "Grotesque" sets out to be an antidote to this lack of imagination. One of Japan's most celebrated crime authors, she uses gore and sex as tools of social protest. Her only other novel to be translated into English, "Out," played psychosexual games but was primarily concerned with class: how four women employed on the night shift at a bento-box factory, none of whom could rely on a man for help, could make it, well, out. The fact that a body -- OK, a few bodies -- were hacked in the process was just a little color to fill in the stark lines.
"Out" was dark, but the plot of "Grotesque" is buried deep in the gutter. If you've ever wanted to read about a streetwalker wearing blue eye shadow who turns tricks with homeless men in vacant lots, this book is for you. The crudeness and violence, a daily reality for these women who have long since outgrown their school uniforms, is the result of a tightly regimented culture, where accidents of birth determine one's station and force some women off the grid.
Three furies haunt "Grotesque": the freakishly beautiful Yuriko; her unnamed ugly, malicious sister; and the sister's needy, overachieving classmate, Kazue. Yuriko and her sister are half-Japanese, half-Swiss; when their parents move abroad (their mother will commit suicide), the two, who cannot get along, spend their high school years in separate homes. Yuriko lives with family "friends" (if a "friend" sleeps with a 14-year-old when his wife isn't looking); her sister lives with their grandfather. Both attend the prestigious and cutthroat Q High School for Young Women in Tokyo. The story opens after Yuriko, who starts turning tricks as a teenager, and Kazue, who leads a double life as a cheap streetwalker and an employee at an elite engineering firm, have been murdered. The suspect is a Chinese illegal immigrant named Zhang, once the paid lover of the daughter of a high-ranking Communist official, who may or may not have killed his sister, who was -- you guessed it -- a prostitute. Yuriko's sister is the only one of the lot who hasn't sold her body, and she's a virgin.
Yuriko's "lascivious blood" left her "no choice but to lust for men"; she was a sex maniac who "never loved anyone, not once." It's hard to know what to make of Kirino's insistence on Yuriko's nymphomania-for-hire, which is, after all, a male fantasy -- in this case replete with "red leather coat" and "silver ultra-minidress." As she ages, she becomes uglier, a kind of red-light portrait of Dorian Gray. But do not fear. "[A]s long as there is life in my body," she vows, "I will go on wanting men."
The sister has her own "talent" -- "the uncompromising ability to feel spite," which she "polished every day." As narrator, she relishes describing this meanness more than performing it, for there is little in the way of plot. Each woman becomes a more debased version of herself: Downwardly mobile Yuriko moves from an exclusive clientele to sharing a corner with Kazue; the sister takes pleasure in their deaths. Zhang's story is a welcome interlude because something happens: He flees home and struggles with forces outside his own mind.
"Grotesque" is not a thriller, it is an anthropological study. And in this tightly closed system of overdetermined perversity, the book takes on a fantastic quality; characters are more symbol than substance. As each pops up in the others' stories, their self-deceptions become apparent and the truth of their lives and relationships even more muddled.
Kirino's grotesques are lonely, twisted and suffering, but they aren't capable of being surprising in the way that real people are. They are not characters but templates, proof that the contest for beauty and money, combined with a lack of power, pushes women into the very stereotypes that ultimately destroy them.