Books / Reviews

Deadly disconnect in the 'Real World'

by Steve Finbow

REAL WORLD by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Philip Gabriel. Vintage, 2008, 224 pp., £7.99 (paper)

A high school student, unhappy with life, bludgeons his mother to death with a baseball bat. He is calm and appears removed, almost abstracted from the events. He leaves the scene and disappears into the prefectures surrounding Tokyo. The boy’s nickname is Worm. He is not the hero of this book.

The third of Natsuo Kirino’s novels (after “Out” and “Grotesque”) to be translated into English, “Real World” borrows themes and motifs from its predecessors — the dynamics of a female group and the angst of teenage lives — and applies a tight plot dealing in identity, matricide and friendship. Not as disturbing as “Out” and better realized than “Grotesque,” “Real World” is an almost news-as-novel take on Japanese crime writing — if it is crime writing.

Four teenage girls — Toshi, Yuzan, Terauchi and Kirarin slog their way through summer school and teenage depression. The weather is hot. The plot is feverish. The girls communicate mostly through e-mail and text messages, by calls from their cell phones and, ultimately, through a letter that is a suicide note. Here Kirino demonstrates the isolation of everyday lives — the very connectedness of new media results in disassociation.

The girls have their cliques. Worm is a loner, pressured by his parents to do well at his elite school, yet shunned by his classmates. Like a lesson in fictional symbolic-interactionism, Kirino asks, through her characters, “What is the real world?” Is it what we experience on the Internet, at the cinema, on television? Or is it how we relate to our peers, our parents and society? If we act — if we commit violence, sleep with strangers, admit our sexuality or consider suicide — is that more “real” than acquiescing to the demands of a consensus morality or a shared ethics?

One of the problems with this novel is that, although the analysis of teenage morality and action is interesting and valid, the writing is more tell than show. Paragraphs explaining the plot and the characters’ thoughts pepper the narrative. The reader isn’t allowed to make up his/her mind as to the motivations (or nihilistic lethargy) of the teenagers. At times, the novel is over-explicatory, condescending even.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure where the readership is pitched. In places, the novel reads as if it were written with its protagonists as the potential audience. Another annoying trait — and this is not specific to Kirino’s work — is the translation of the speech patterns of Japanese teenagers. Not all Japanese adolescents, I’m sure, speak like Valley Girls and Surfer Dudes. My third grievance is the cover — a slight variance (more blood) on those of “Out” and “Grotesque.” Marketing the novels as J-Horror is a ploy — a disingenuous one.

Regardless of these quibbles, however, “Real World” is more than just a crime novel. It investigates the breakdown of the extended family into nuclear units and the subsequent consequences for the individual. It exposes how teenagers are assailed by advertising and the media, by tutors, parents and perverts. It investigates how identity is formed — is it by association or accomplishment? If the media metastasizes any event that is outside the norm, then is it by fame (of whatever kind) that the individual is able to rise above the mass?

Worm is aware of murderers such as the child-killer Sakakibara Seito, but the title gives away the biggest clue. 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? You tick the box.