Reality Check

By Bill Kohlhaase

Posted November 13, 2008 in Arts & Culture

MTV’s long-running reality show The Real World tosses a group of contrasting strangers together and then steps back to watch what happens. Natsuo Kirino’s novel Real World throws a killer into the lives of four young Japanese women and does pretty much the same. It’s not only the circumstances that make the novel more fascinating and, in a sense, more real than reality television. It’s the consequences. 

Real World is a nerve-wracking existential thriller in which the horror, aside from the baseball bat-inflicted matricide, is teen-age life in Japan. It opens with a single page introduction that explains that the Japanese school year runs April through March with a short summer break. Students lead pressurized lives under the gospel that academic achievement will make or destroy them. The events happen during the summer break, a time when wailing sirens announce pollution alerts and students stay busy with “cram school,” a place where graduate students pester their younger charges to work hard enough to “spit up blood.” It’s no wonder they’re looking for a way out.

Grotesque, Kirino’s previous novel translated from Japanese (Philip Gabriel, who translated Haruki Murakami’s celebrated Kafka On the Shore, translated Real World), also deals with murder and the pressures of Japanese academic life. In that book, the focus is on two sisters, one plain, one stunningly beautiful, and how the forces of everyday life lead them into less–than-attractive circumstances. Real World again contrasts types—one of the four girls is a dutiful student, one is introspective and confused, one outwardly confident and another wild and unpredictable while maintaining a façade of respectability—but all are intrigued by the young male killer when he enters their lives. He’s a rebel who’s turned against the grind of status-seeking education and that makes him a hero of sorts. The girls’ differing personalities suggest stereotype, making the story something of an allegory. And they’re quick to classify the students around them: nerds and Barbie Girls and kids who join clubs. Throw in demanding adults and “we’re basically surrounded by enemies,” as one of the girls, Toshi, muses. Their reactions to the killer aren’t as clichéd.

Toshi lives in a crowded Tokyo suburb where the houses are so crammed together that “you can hear the parents yelling at each other, or the phone ringing.” One piping hot day, between siren wails, she hears “something breaking” next door where a couple with a son the same age lives. Then she hears another, louder crash, so loud that, “I flinched and messed up my left eyebrow. Maybe I should redo it . . . ” Toshi’s not the only self-obsessed character in the book. The murderer’s victim, his mother, liked to brag about the prestigious high school her son attends. It was the only thing she ever talked about with her neighbors.

Mothers and their absence play a huge role. One of the girls loses a mother to cancer, another to an affair. Fathers remain aloof and out of touch, drinking, carrying on and not distinguishing themselves from the mass of others. Worm hates his father on generational terms. “All he’s got are dusty old sets of collected works. Those aren’t books—they’re furniture. And how about all those records he’s collected since college? He never listens to them . . . don’t give me all that crap about how great analog sounds, okay?”

No one in the book is as self-obsessed as Worm, the name the girls give to the murderer. Making contact after stealing one of their cell phones, Worm asks Terauchi to memorialize his matricide with a poem or short story. He asks her to “sprinkle in some Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche or whatever,” and then to wrap it up like “Evangelion,” the militaristic magna and movie-television franchise that pits teens against monster robotic “angels.” He wants it unique, better than another infamous teen killer’s manifesto and, at the same time, “incomprehensible.”

At first, technology separates the girls from Worm’s crime, even as they’re drawn to him. His evil is diluted through cell phone and text messages. Face-to-face contact proves disappointing. Worm turns out to be just another powerless teen, fearful of sexuality and unable to deal with reality. He smells bad. The different expressions of cruelty—the mother’s killing as well as the teasing of the murderer—all seem to come from the some instinctual source.

Kirino’s tale is as smart as it is tense and dramatic. An open window into Japanese society, it also expounds dark, universal truths. When these young people face the reality of their actions they become utterly human and resort to ritualistic solutions that seem at odds with their desire to escape the predictable. Maybe that’s the lesson here. We’re not so different as we think. In the end, there’s just no escaping reality.

Real World by Natsuo Kirino; Alfred A. Knopf, Hardback, 208 pages, $23.95 


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