Do the suffocating pressures of Japanese society produce monsters? Does trying to live by men’s rules drive women crazy? These are two of the questions posed by Natsuo Kirino in her powerful new novel, “Grotesque.”

In her earlier mystery, titled “Out,” now available in an English translation from Kodansha International, Kirino looked at four women leading lives of quiet desperation on the fringes of Japanese society. “Grotesque” (Bungei Shunjuu, 536 pp.), on the other hand, was inspired by a 1997 murder in which the victim was a 39-year-old woman who was a researcher at Tokyo Electric Power Co. by day, and a prostitute by night.

Why would a career woman at an elite firm lead such a double life? Kirino starts exploring possible answers in one microcosm of Japanese society she calls school Q (thought to represent Keio), and the coping mechanisms of four female students there.

At this elite school, which runs its own kindergarten, the pecking order is determined by a complex formula that takes into account family background, personal style, brains and beauty. Mitsuru, a target of ijime (bullying) because of her mother’s nouveau-riche style of dress, survives by becoming an intellectual freak, secretly studying half the night to protect her rank as No. 1. Yuriko, the daughter of a Swiss father and a Japanese mother, glides through with her unearthly beauty. Her sister, “Onee-chan,” drops out of the race early on and observes bitterly from the sidelines, polishing her malice toward others as a psychological shield.

Finally there’s Sato Kazue, who has been taught at home that effort can overcome any obstacle, and who becomes a monster of ganbaru (striving, maximum effort) but crashes cluelessly into one wall after another. Rejected by the cheerleading club (province of the school’s elite), ridiculed for embroidering a Ralph Lauren logo on her socks, unable to surpass Mitsuru in grades, she falls prey to an eating disorder after her pursuit of a teacher’s son ends in failure.

The limits of such strategies become evident 20 years on. Mitsuru graduates from the University of Tokyo medical school but enters an Aum Shinrikyo-like cult and ends up in prison. Yuriko becomes a model, but as she ages she ultimately ends up in street prostitution. Onee-chan fails in her ambition to become a translator and ekes out a living working part-time at a ward office. Kazue enters her father’s company, an elite construction firm. But she becomes disillusioned after being shut out of any significant role, and turns to the sex business at night. Eventually, both Yuriko and Kazue are killed by a sex customer, the illegal Chinese worker Chang.

Kirino’s book successfully combines psychological insight with social commentary in an engrossing first-person narrative. Kazue’s diary, in particular, effectively conveys how the frustrations of having double standards for men and women at work drove her into becoming what she describes as a superwoman with a hidden face, like Superman and his human persona, Clark Kent. While she can’t advance in her daytime job, at her nighttime job she can excel in attracting clients and work toward her goal of having 100 million yen by age 40. As time goes on, she becomes crazier and crazier as her rage at the company and the society that betrayed her takes over her life.

Chang repeatedly talks about the fate of the Chinese being determined by where they were born. Was Kazue’s fate sealed by being born with a personality incapable of compromise, of going along just to get along? By being born into a family where mother and father had no respect for each other? Or by being born into a supposedly classless society that encourages innocents like her to think that drive and effort alone can take one to the top — and that not being at the top is shameful?

In contrast, Onee-chan, doomed like Kazue to always remain one step away from grasping the gold ring, and further warped by living in the shadow of her beautiful sister (Onee-chan is never even given a name in the book), is blessed — or cursed — with a practical knowledge of how the world works that the exasperatingly obtuse Kazue lacks. Rather than railing against the injustice of how things are and wreaking a self-destructive revenge, she becomes more venomous and shriveled in spirit with each passing year.

In interviews with DaVinci (Sept.) and Sunday Mainichi (Aug. 17/24), Kirino says she wasn’t particularly interested in this murder at first, but marveled at the strange excitement that the idea of an elite career woman who was also a prostitute generated among men. Had such gender expectations and fantasies among men been a burden on the woman? When she heard the victim had an eating disorder in high school, she imagined a psychic wound had been lingering from that time.

She set out to write about high school life in an exaggerated, manga-like way but was startled to later learn that this portrayal was closer to reality than she had thought. Of course, no one is forcing girls to accept those rules and enter that sort of competition, but something grotesque within them makes them care about fitting in. She feels there are people like Kazue who are obsessed with how other people see them and with how to get ahead of others.

Kirino had fun doing a modern-day caricature of society as a sort of female war story of cohorts killed in action in a new battle of the sexes. Although she viewed it primarily as a book for women, she reports to Henshu Kaigi (Oct.) that, on the contrary, many men have found it interesting — while many women seem to find it too close to the bone for comfort.

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