Between the Covers
Lust, Not So Much with the Caution
By Kate McMains
Nov 8, 2007

Since bursting on the scene more than 30 years ago with his first, award-winning novel, Almost Transparent Blue (1976), Ryu Murakami has steadily celebrated the fringes of Japanese society while achieving an enviable celebrity status for a writer. He drums in a rock band! He's hosted a talk show! He wrote the screenplay for Takashi Miike's deeply disturbing Audition! He wrote and directed Tokyo Decadence, a 1991 film about an S&M hooker and her misadventures!

Yet in America, the multifaceted Ryu's mostly known as "the other Murakami" (like the other white meat? the other white rice?), a reference to the more frequently translated, quasi-highbrow Haruki Murakami. It must be a delicious jolt to the system for an American reader to aim for Haruki and end up getting (and reading) Ryu, which would be roughly akin to setting out to read the new Michael Chabon and getting punched in the face by Chuck Palahniuk instead.

Three of Ryu Murakami other novels have been translated into English, the disaffected youth-fests Coin Locker Babies (1980), and 69 (1987), the psycho-gaijin romp In the Miso Soup (1997), and now a fifth, Piercing (1994), coming to English-speaking readers thirteen years after the fact. It's a compact work, a mere 185 small pages, mostly concentrated on the action of a single night.

Kawashima Masayuki is a new father with a terrible, compulsive yearning: to stab his infant daughter with an ice pick. Twenty-nine years old, normal externally, but traumatized into schizophrenia to survive an abusive mother, Kawashima devises a plan to discharge his urge without harming his daughter, namely to procure and stab a prostitute in her stead. He checks into a series of large, anonymous hotels in central Tokyo to cool his trail, then calls an S&M escort service.

Sanada Chiaki, the prostitute, is in the midst of one of her own frequent detours from reality. Barely roused from a Halcion stupor, Chiaki's psyche is disintegrating in the hotel lobby on her way to Kawashima's room. Like her customer, Chiaki has suffered parental abuse at the hands (and in her case, also the tongue) of her opposite-gender parent.

Like two fleets of ships passing on a foggy, fragmented night, Kawashima and Chiaki can barely keep their own psychic freight afloat while simultaneously trying to navigate interacting with each other. The linear set-up of the first part of the book (will Kawashima satisfy his urge to stab someone?) is quickly thwarted with the introduction of Chiaki, who upsets Kawashima's prior coping strategies by being as apparently traumatized by the disturbing urges in her head as he is by his. As we switch between the two protagonists, like Rashomon squared, the horror in their heads proves a worse menace than the ice pick Kawashima's got stowed in his carry-on bag. And yet, at the end of the long night's journey into day, both Chiaki and Kawashima prove that the malleability of survivors, muscle born of terrible circumstances, will force them to sail on, despite the deep undertow of memories no child or adult should endure.

Natsuo Kirino's first novel translated into English, Out, took six years from its original 1997 publication (and sensation) in Japan to the American version, which was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1994 (making Kirino the first Japanese author to be so honored). A contemporary of Ryu Murakami (both are in their mid-fifties), Kirino earned a law degree and was a magazine writer/editor for many years before publishing her first novel at age 41 and quickly becoming one of Japan's top mystery writers.

While Ryu Murakami focuses on what are already-extreme protagonists, Kirino's Out and her new book in English, Grotesque, are more concerned with what drives ordinary people (primarily women) into desperate circumstances. In both books, it seems that the rigid roles for Japanese women are the primary engine of despair, that the ties that bind are also the ones that strangle, leaving us with diaries of mad housewives-with-socially-acceptable/shitty-husbands, mad superachievers-that-never-win students, mad objects of lust-who-grab-cocks-instead-of-real-power.

Grotesque begins when two Tokyo prostitutes are murdered, their deaths the final intertwining of their lives, as previously very different classmates at the same ultracompetitive girls school. Yuriko is the school beauty, a thrill-seeker looking to exploit the attentions of others. Kazue is an academic grind, an intense girl who works so hard to fit in at school and achieve/achieve/achieve that her self-loathing was wasting away her mind and body long before she was murdered.

Yuriko's nameless, year-older sister, who bitterly does not share Yuriko's looks (though does have a sisterly quantity of venomous pride), serves as the lead-off of the book's thoroughly detailed and unreliable narrators. After 100 pages, we shift to Yuriko's POV in the device of a diary, where for the next 50 pages narcissism and nymphomania curl around each other like snakes. After another 50 pages of twisted older sister, the POV changes to a backstory confession to the Tokyo police from Zhang Zhe-zhong, the Chinese émigré accused of murdering the two women. The story switches back to the older sister, attending the legal hearings of the murders and encountering other classmates from their school. The final 100 pages or so belong to Kazue's journals, detailed -- but with ever-widening gaps between entries -- accountings of her claustrophobic existence in the last 18 months of her life. The two lives Kazue leads, erratic office lady by day, anorexic, cut-rate hooker by night, are both suffused with misplaced pride and rage shared by all three of the female protagonists, yet they remain isolated from each other, trapped in different cages. There is both a specific and universal quality to the despair of the classmates in their adult lives, and in Kirino's masterful hands the material is never mawkish or unbelievably extreme.

In both Grotesque and Piercing, the central mysteries (who really killed Yuriko and Kazue? Will Kawashima kill Chiaki?) eventually fall away to reveal the pain of modern life, and how we survive (or not) the slings and arrows of social structures (family, school) that define and confine us.

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