Real World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Jul 15 2008
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Praise for Natsuo Kirino’s Real World
“Disquieting and suspenseful. . . . As Dostoyevsky did in Crime and Punishment, Kirino pushes her antihero to murder as a means of philosophical statement and communicates an authorial anxiety that contemporary social ills will destroy humanity.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Disturbingly intimate. . . . Unflinching. . . . [Kirino’s characters] speak as one voice of youth in an utterly hypnotic, illuminating narrative.” –The Miami Herald
“Transfixing. . . . [Kirino] reevaluates a teenager’s place in today’s world. . . . Real World is not exactly a thriller, a mystery or a whodunit. It’s a psychologically complex story told in a breezy, adolescent way, reminiscent of Bonjour Tristesse.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Brilliant feminist noir. . . . A sleek, assured and disturbing novel about four young women who get caught up in the aftermath of a murder. . . . Reads like Little Women in an acid bath. . . . You won’t want to miss it.” –The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Instead of one lone maniac, Kirino makes adolescent ennui and detachment the villain, tracing out a spooky cultural phenomenon that makes [Real World] a purely psychological thriller.” –Time Out Chicago
“Jealousy, solipsism, fear, arrogance–the mind of an adolescent can be a frustrating and scary place. . . . [Real World] takes us deep inside the heads of these kids.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“If Real World is indeed a work of social realism, Kirino is either a masterful cynic or the cartographer of a very scary side of reality.” –The New York Sun
“It’s rare to come across a book that is unlike anything you’ve ever read. Real World is such a book. . . . Kirino’s mix of the savage and the mundane is masterful. . . . Hers is a fresh, contemporary voice that captures the attitude of youth culture around the world. . . . An addictive, compelling read.” –Daily Camera (Boulder)
“Kirino delves deeply into the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that each girl shares. . . . She works to understand how the girls can become so disassociated from their own moral center, ultimately insinuating that after being raised in a culture of texting, reality shows, etc., they’re looking for any connection to the feeling world.” –Providence Journal
“Impressive. . . . [Real World’s] sinister plot provides Kirino with plenty of welcome occasions to render the acute psychosexual portraiture at which she so excels. . . . Kirino’s high-toned crime-fiction is, above all, morbidly fascinating.” –The Tennessean
“[A] taut thriller. . . . [Kirino] has a knack for portraying the lives of teenage girls.” –More
“Kirino creates a fictional universe in which the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. Through Worm, she chronicles the toxic fall-out of an educational system that fosters conformity above individualism. . . . And Philip Gabriel’s excellent translation helps to bring this lurid tale into even sharper focus.” –The Independent (UK)
“Bleak, exquisitely imagined. . . . Real World is not a whodunit but a disturbing whydunit. . . . A novel of murder most creepy.” –The Georgia Straight (Vancouver)
“Real World is unusual: a thriller with a strong moral overtone, it begins with violence and ends with regret. . . . It’s [Kirino’s] portrayal of typically teenaged double-triple lives that makes this story so successful and so disturbing. It's not the murder, but the reaction to it that will strike fear into the hearts of readers. . . . It will engage people everywhere–men and women, young and old–because Kirino is an extremely talented writer with a style that is unmistakably her own, even in translation.” –The Gazette (Montreal)
“Kirino offers a dark view of the world rarely found in books by women authors. . . . [Her characters] are people suffering from the dehumanizing of society itself, not from mere teenage angst.” –The Post and Courier (Charleston)
“To read a novel by Natsuo Kirino is to make a pact with truth–a clever, stark, brutal reality that has little room for trivialities like affection and warmth. . . . [In Real World,] the drama spirals outward until it is unclear what is more perverse–a brutal killing or the smaller acts of social cruelty that both teenagers and adults commit daily and without remorse.” –Geek Monthly
“Feverish. . . . Real World is more than just a crime novel. . . . Kirino challenges the reader to decide: Is existence and reality found in cyberspace, in death, in the family, in murder, in suicide, or in friendship?” –Japan Times
“Kirino demands total submission to her characters’ inner lives. . . . Rather than crafting a simple crime novel or painting a grotesque portrait of people ruled by perverse desires and criminal hearts, Kirino’s narrative challenges readers to confront the truth of human nature, to release judgments about violence and see beyond the act to its roots.” –The Honolulu Advertiser
About the Author
Natsuo Kirino, born in 1951, is the author of eighteen novels, four short-story collections, and an essay collection. She is the recipient of six of Japan’s premier literary awards, including the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Out and the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature for Grotesque. Her work has been translated into nineteen languages, and several of her books have been turned into movies. Out was the first of her novels to appear in English and was nominated for an Edgar Award. She lives in Tokyo.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Natsuo Kirino writes books that will freak you out a little. She will introduce you to characters who appear to live ordinary lives in Japan but underneath the veneer of normalcy lies a twisted and depraved subculture. Is it the culture, the climate or the history that changes these people and allows them to so cooly slip into a life of crime? In each book, you meet people who only in flirting with death do they feel alive. Although this really worked in her previous books, Grotesque and Out, it didn't quite work in Real World. It is still fascinating to read about people who so casually accept murder and degradation, but the teenage dialogue was a little too annoying. And I have to tell you, if this is really a portrait of teenage life in Japan...yikes!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The high school girls of "Real World", though markedly different individually, have a few things in common. They worry about school. They talk about relationships. They all think they are hiding something from each other when in fact their fears, flaws, and sexual practices are all too obvious to their peers. Above everything else, they loathe their parents.
Therefore it is not surprising that, when a teenage boy outside their circle goes on the run after being accused of murdering his mother, their reaction is initially one of empathy and fascination rather than repulsion. Their decisions to help him cover his tracks, and subsequently protect each other, have ramifications that will last for the rest of their lives.
The result is an engaging character study of Japanese teenagers facing the pressures of Japanese society - observing familial obligations, meeting cram school demands, avoiding perverts on the train - and suddenly being confronted with a situation none of them has the maturity to handle. Particularly interesting is Kirino's portrait of the teenage boy as the fugitive whose grip on reality unravels before our eyes.
I have two objections to the novel. The first is one of authenticity: although externally the girls exhibited differences (one is smart, one is a lesbian, one is a slut, and so on), their internal monologues were painfully similar, so much so that I was constantly losing my suspension of disbelief. This gave rise to my second objection: I frequently wanted to yell, "You idiot!" to the particular narrator at various points of the novel. Dealing with teenagers, this might be expected, but the similarity between their voices, and hence the lack of individual 'reasoning' when it came to decision-making, made me frustrated with these female anti-heroes. Still, I remained attached to the book until the very end.
I would recommend "Real World" specifically to those readers who have an interest in modern Japanese culture. Based on other sources, I think the environment Kirino describes is accurate, and the struggles faced by teenagers there realistic and reflected in her writing. As to whether she does justice to her characters, or if they are merely facets of herself projected into different situations, is a little harder to tell.
As she did in OUT, her first novel to be translated into English, Ms. Kirino centers her attention in REAL WORLD on four female friends. This time, however, her focus shifts from the adult world (the four lead characters in OUT were all night shift workers at a box lunch factory) to that of adolescent teens in the summer before their senior years of high school. The four girls are teen archetypes: Toshi the straight arrow, Terauchi the intellectual, Yuzan the boyish lesbian not yet quite out of the closet, and Kirarin the secretively adventuresome one. Cram school and study sessions to prepare for their upcoming college entrance exams weigh heavily upon them, as oppressive and enveloping as summer humidity.
Each girl faces the uncertainties of young adulthood with trepidation - college, or not; dreary life with an office lady career and marriage to a salary man, or something less stultifying than their parents' lives; remaining a virgin, or hooking up; accepting one's sexual identity, or conforming. Each maintains her public front among her best friends, schoolmates, and family as though wandering through a masked ball, all the while wrestling with far deeper internal conflicts, resentments, hatreds, and insecurities. Even their names are signifying masks. Toshi, for example (whose full given name Toshiko means nothing more than ten and four, representing her birth date of October 4), adopts the alter ego Ninna Hori, Japanese characters for a temple moat. Yuzan, on the other hand, is really Kyomi Kaibara; her name Yuzan was borrowed from the father character in a popular manga series.
Into the midst of this angst-ridden circle of teen females falls Toshi's teen-aged boy neighbor, nicknamed Worm by the girls, who has just murdered his mother with a baseball bat and escaped to the countryside on Toshi's bicycle. The four girls are drawn into the Worm's orbit like moths to a flame: Toshi aids Worm's escape by refusing to answer questions from the police detective, Yuzan loans him her bicycle and buys him a new cell phone, and Kirarin joins him "on the run." Seemingly small acts matter, and unintended consequences abound. Each girl in her own way is fascinated by his willingness to act, to strike out without concern for the consequences against the aspects of his life that aggrieve him. What appears as an outwardly senseless criminal act to the media-driven adult world seems understandable if not perfectly reasonable to them. Would that they had the courage to act as he did, to lash out against the constraints and hypocrisies in their own lives.
Ms. Kirino tells her story by alternating voices from chapter to chapter among the four girls and Worm. By doing so, she gradually uncovers disturbing aspects of each girl's life - indifferent parents, absentee fathers, a daughter left alone with her mother as she slowly dies from ovarian cancer, a mother having an affair, unfaithful boyfriends, sexual harassment of a young girl on her daily train ride to school. Yet even as the girls' respective characters take shape and add complexity, the fugitive Worm - the book's central male character - regresses from a threatening, Raskolnikovian nihilism to a frightened, blubbering infantilism. Kirino's is a distinctively female world, dominated by mothers, female police detectives, school friends, and lesbian friends of Yuzan who take on names like Dahmer (as in Jeffrey, the cannibalistic American serial killer). Males are ineffectual or absentee fathers, clueless braggadocios like Worm, gays, and boyfriends who act thoughtlessly, or tentatively and too late.
REAL WORLD reveals the crime and its perpetrator in its first pages, so the crux of its story is not solving the crime, nor is it even the chase. Rather, Ms. Kirino uses a shockingly brutal and apparently senseless act to explore its effect on four young women sitting at the cusp of adulthood. She thereby shines a stark light on the Japanese teen female psyche, drawing a picture of child-adults who are variously scared, victimized, misunderstood, ignored, oppressed by adult and societal expectations, and altogether alienated from the world around them.
As in her two previous books translated into English, Ms. Kirino proves herself more a social critic employing the murder mystery genre than a mystery writer. Her interests are not in the crime or even the chase, but in the main actors themselves and those who events draw in from the periphery. If, as it is said, the novel gives readers a chance to go places they might never go, see things they might never see, and meet people they might never meet, then Ms. Kirino's books certainly accomplish this feat for Japan, particularly for Western readers. However, the people, places, and things she shows us about her country are as darkly disturbing as the murders that precipitate her chains of events. Her bleak ending in REAL WORLD offers little hope of redemption or a better future for her characters. Only Toshi seems to make a positive movement forward, yet we know she is scarred for life and doubtless headed for the same sterile future her parents have lived. As Worm's case illustrates (further amplified by the actions of the philosophically intellectual Terauchi), there is no hope of escape from their societal straightjacket.
On one level the central action is the murder of a mother by a son--a murder described as seen by the son as the killer and also from the point of view of the mother being murdered, as imagined by her son. An artistic tightrope act like this--effortlessly shifting points of view, startling, almost horrifying images (the description of the metal bat hitting the victim's head and body, for example) done by a lesser novelist might be just the author showing off her verbal chops. For Kirino, though, every action by every character--whether carefully thought out, done at the spur of a moment or even random happenstance--serves her theme of the unbridgeable gap between high school students in Japan, who act as if they are insane but who aren't yet and their parents, who have given in to the insanity. While the murder is brutal, the response of the four girls in the clique at the center of the book is the real story. They are jaw-droppingly casual about the killing itself, even as they become more involved with Worm, the teenage killer, a neighbor of Toshi one of the girls in a clique. Worm steals Toshi's bike and cell phone. He begins calling the numbers in the phone, eventually reaching Terauchi, Kirarin and Yuzan, girls who are not so much friends as allies against the madness around them.
The central reality in all of the girls' lives is the level of the high school they attend--if one is a poor student at an elite school is that better then being a superior student at a merely good school--the college entrance exams they face and dread. Their lives have been based on an 11-month school year with a couple of weeks off between each of the three semesters and the one month summer break taken up by cram school to prepare them for the exams. This has been how they have lived for years, barely seeing their parents, fearful of the future, hating the present with its incessant smog alerts. The novel opens with a metallic voice from a loudspeaker announcing dangerous air quality, which Toshi ignores, a perfect image of how little affect adults have on the teenage world. Under these circumstances killing one's mother makes as much or as little sense as anything else. Toshi is more annoyed with the loss of her cell phone than the death of her neighbor and lies to the police almost naturally and certainly without compunction.
The book is structured as serial narratives from each of the girls. Toshi hears the killing take place next door--hears a struggle and glass breaking--but since she isn't interested in Worm or his mother, thinks little of it once she decides she isn't in danger. Her sections begin and end the book--her style is flat, unadorned and tough, describing both what she sees and what she feels with the same affectless tone. Kirarin is a beauty, one who has been subject to being groped and tormented on the subway by men beginning when she was nine years old. Unaccompanied in trips across the city to a "good" grammar school, wearing her school uniform sailor suit, she was a magnet for the men who molested her and now makes money by accompanying them to love hotels in the afternoon. Yuzan is a Lesbian who decides the real world is the gay subculture she found when she ditched her cram school to cruise gay bars. Both Kirarin and Yuzan are sexual misfits with no connection with their families.
"Real World" begins with murder and ends with suicide, accidental death and random violence. While not quite on the same level as "Out" and "Grotesque" it is a chilling and dismaying look at the world and an extraordinarily well done book.
Kirino's third novel to be published in the U.S., REAL WORLD, is no exception. Although the plot could probably be summarized in a sentence or two, and although that plot could sound like the basis for a really bad teenage thriller movie, his deft and perceptive social observation and commentary lift the book from the world of the grotesque into the realm of ideas.
REAL WORLD, like its predecessors, begins with a murder. This time, it's the murder of a mother by her teenaged son, known as Worm. Worm, like all the young characters in the book, is privileged, going to a good school and attending "cram school" during the summer to ensure that he doesn't fall behind in attempts to make it into the best university. The murder is overheard by Worm's neighbor, Toshi, a responsible girl and the center of her small group of friends.
In his escape, Worm steals Toshi's bicycle as well as her cell phone, subsequently using its address book to connect with Toshi's friends: Yuzan, a closet lesbian struggling to define her identity; Terauchi, a thoughtful girl and a good student who Worm enlists to write his "manifesto"; and Kirarin, a beautiful young lady whose night life as a reckless wild child is a secret even from her friends. In turn, each girl --- as well as Worm himself --- reveals hidden motivations, societal and familial pressures, and personal histories that lead each to make startling, and sometimes tragic, decisions.
The novel's title hints at one of its major themes --- the notion of authenticity, of creating an individual, meaningful self when one's society is focused above all on conformity as well as on scholastic and financial success. Once word of the murder gets out, Worm becomes an underground online hero, not because he killed his mother per se, but because this successful student from a good home found a way to escape from the life that had seemed pre-ordained for him.
Likewise, each of Worm's contacts from Toshi's phone is striving --- with various degrees of success --- to escape from the expected, often by putting up boundaries or masks, by creating an equally inauthentic "weapon," as Terauchi reflects: "My weapon is that I can hide my feelings and say something stupid to cover them up. Toshi's weapon is her made-up name, Ninna Hori, for Kirarin, it's always pretending to be cheerful. Yuzan's the only one who painfully exposes herself to the world."
The elusive nature of the "real," the authentic, is just one of the complicated ideas that gives this novel its real backbone, its philosophical and emotional heft. Sure, it's a compelling story that ends with a tragic convergence of events, but it's also an exploration of four distinct female "types," an exposé of teenage culture in Japan and an insightful glimpse into Japanese culture in general. This combination of elements will both fascinate and resonate with Western readers, who will certainly be clamoring to have access to even more of Natsuo Kirino's electrifying, intelligent noir novels.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl