As Beauty Does
By Bill Kohlhaase
We all know the proverbial wisdom about beauty. It’s skin deep. It’s fleeting. It is what it does. Natsuo Kirino’s newly translated novel Grotesque confirms all these proverbs, and not prettily. It’s a disturbing picture of beauty’s burden, both to the one who carries it and those around her.
You wouldn’t think that a novel centered on beauty would be titled Grotesque. That’s because we don’t view it with the same eyes as the book’s narrator, the plain-Jane unnamed sister of the “terrifyingly” beautiful Yuriko. Yuriko’s beauty is perfect in proportion and feature, so striking that, even as a child, she causes men and women alike to stop and marvel. Yuriko’s sister can’t help but be overlooked and she repeats her judgment of her sister often in the book. In her words, Yuriko’s beauty is “monstrous.” Beauty, as we’ve heard, is in the eye of the beholder.
Yuriko is a source of envy and worse for all those around her, but especially for her sister. “For a girl, appearance can be a powerful form of oppression,” says the sister. “No matter how intelligent a girl may be, no matter her many talents . . . brains and talent will never stand up against a girl who is clearly physically attractive.” Viewed from the outside, beauty is a source of advantage. Grotesque shows how it can be squandered.
On its surface, Grotesque is the story of two murdered prostitutes; events that make the title seem more appropriate. But strangulation is only a plot device in the book, a means to larger subjects. The novel paints a bleak picture of “the value system that holds sway in Japan” with its cutthroat prep school competition, Dilbert-like corporate hierarchy and after-hours debauchery. Rants against beauty go deep. Get below its skin and Grotesque is a disturbing, even disgusting look, at human motivation. Kirino is the author of some 16 Japanese novels. Her only other English translation (so far, more are scheduled) is the it-takes-a-village-to dispose-a-body thriller Out. Calling Kirino a detective novelist–she started out as a romance writer–doesn’t do her justice. Though there’s a mystery to be solved, Grotesque is no more a detective novel than is Crime and Punishment. Kirino’s emphasis is on character rather than plot. She’s more Hubert Selby (Requiem For A Dream) than Mickey Spillane.
If beauty is as beauty does then it becomes something cheap in Yuriko’s care. Gaining entrance to her sister’s exclusive school on the basis of her looks, Yuriko is quickly taken in by a professor’s son who manages her sex life. An object of envy and emulation, she unknowingly influences the intelligent, but pitiful, Kazue to eventually supplement her day job at an architectural firm by turning cheap and cheaper tricks at night. Long after Yuriko’s looks have gone to fat and coarseness, the anorexic Kazue still believes she’s young and pretty. Even more delusional, she believes she’s in control of her life.
This kind of psychology–the delusional sort–is Kirino’s focus. Contradictions become apparent when the sister’s narrative is supplemented with the killer’s deposition, other court documents and Kazue’s diary. The characters’ contrasting points of view reveal their self-deception. No one is who they think they are. And even as they face truth, they hang on to certain lies, usually in matters of appearance. At one point in the story, wigs are everywhere.
The more the sister says, the more she’s laid bare. “Thanks to Yuriko,” she explains, “I too had been blessed with a certain talent. My talent was the uncompromising ability to feel spite.” Her venom is directed everywhere: at her parents–one of whom is Swedish, the other Japanese–at her schoolmates and teachers, at men and especially at herself. Conditioned to be cold, she shrugs off her sister’s murder even as she’s fascinated with the killer. When she finally finds someone she doesn’t hate, it’s someone innocent and, to her eyes, beautiful–her sister’s abandoned son.
The sister theme extends to the killer and the tale of his escape from rural China. His is not a story of triumph over adversity but more about what one is willing to do to quit a downtrodden life. In the book’s darkest section, incest leads to jealousy and jealousy to murder.
Grotesque has drawn barbs from some critics who find it degrading to women, especially in its depiction of the prostitute Kazue. Such judgment misses the irony of the character’s delusions while overlooking the in-your-face pronouncements of workplace bias against women in general and aging women in particular. Kirino has written a dark and disturbing story whose characters have complex and contradictory personalities. Yet their stories, and their needs, ring true. And we all know that truth is beauty.
Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino; Alfred A. Knopf, hardback, 467 pages, $24.95.