March 2004

Sanford May

big in japan

Time Out of Mind

If I were Japanese, I believe I would be sitting down to review Natsuo Kirino's book Out as a mystery novel; a gory, unpleasant mystery novel, but still a mystery novel. As it is, not being Japanese, being gaijin, a Westerner, I'm reviewing a horror novel; for that is what Out is in my realm of experience: a horror novel, pure and simple. There's not even much mystery, as the resolution of mainline plots and tributaries is patently obvious throughout the novel. I might even say it's predictable, though I have my suspicions that Kirino intended her material to be just that, and therein lies a major portion of Out's charm.

On it's face, Out is a book about an unhappy, occasionally abused wife who of the moment loses control and strangles her husband with a belt. That act in itself hardly makes for a novel novel. The propensity for human beings to become temporarily unhinged and do something foolish or aggressive or irreversible -- usually all three -- is fair fodder for literature of all genres, especially mystery and horror, and could come as no surprise to the reader. It's the manner of fixing things that makes the book. And we'd hardly be satisfied if Yayoi Yamamoto resolved her troubles the everyday way, directly turning herself into the local police precinct, at the mercy of law enforcement and the Japanese judicial system. Not without design, very few literary culprits go that route - how many two-page mystery novels have you read? It's the getting out of the jam that pushes you up around 300 pages. And here Kirino shines.

Yayoi works the night shift at a box-lunch factory with a loosely knit cabal of female friends. Just the sort of friends, casual enough to keep their distance, who wouldn't step up of their own accord to aid her out of her fix. But then there's the Masako, the spiritual if not tangible leader of the clique. Masako is one of those individuals who possesses something sinister and seething just beneath her skin, though you'll never nail down a proximate cause - just something wrong with her, in a peculiar, particular way, that allows her to play with the distinction between right and wrong by routes others would immediately shy away from. Thus it is Masako who consents to help Yayoi get rid of her husband's body, in a manner, if all goes well, that he will seem, for all intents and purposes, to have merely disappeared into thin air: they'll chop him into bits and deposit the portions throughout the Tokyo suburb's garbage collection point; he'll be incinerated into so much post-mammalian vapor and ash. As an impromptu plan, it's not a bad one, and as they say in Scooby Doo episodes, they just might have gotten away with it if... If it weren't for meddling hangers-on like Kuniko, the sort of acquaintance one tolerates more than celebrates.

Yoshie, a fellow line worker, becomes entangled, more of necessity - it takes a bit of doing to haul a man's body about it, settle it in a secure place and then thoroughly dismember it - than obligation. Once Yoshie is in, with the promise of a little payment from Yayoi for her trouble, Kuniko - a high-life girl on a low-life budget if there every was one - quickly insinuates herself into the mess. And it is a mess. One is tempted to swear that Kuniko would have never become involved if she knew truly what a shambles it could become; but one would be wrong: Kuniko is the sort of person who puts herself in the middles of messes by rote, no matter how ominous the distant early warnings. Kuniko has entangled herself in a rat's nest of loans, interest payments, more loans to cover the interest payments: the sort of financial morass that would make a ready accomplice out of almost anyone fool enough to get herself into such fiscal complications in the first place.

To the point, Masako, Yoshie and Kuniko cut Yamamoto-san to pieces - tiny pieces - separate him into numerous garbage bags -- mixing fingers with feet and hands with kidneys as if this would throw anyone off the scent of a human corpse -- and distribute him about various collection points in the suburbs of Tokyo. Kuniko, lamentably, isn't swift enough to note that depositing Yamamoto-sushi in a serene public park's trash receptacles isn't the most expedient method of avoiding public scrutiny.

Lucky for our ersatz protagonists, Yayoi's husband has himself mixed up in borrowing against the house to fund illegal gambling and chasing club girls off club premises: either indulgence a sure way to get a pedestrian little salaryman in deep with the wrong element. Presto! There's good reason for at least a dozen men, one in particular, to want Yamamoto dead and to dispatch the task in such a particularly swift and gruesome manner. Yayoi, Masako and the gang promptly collect on one hell of a Get of Jail Free pass. If it weren't for Kuniko, why they'd all be off the hook.

But it is for Kuniko. One of Kuniko's creditors -- a petty criminal running a low-brow loan-sharking operation in a tumbledown building above a thoroughly unsanitary sushi bar -- follows the story in the newspapers, puts two and two together, and then four and four for eight, and presents himself to Kuniko with a proposition. Going by the flair alias of Jumonji, the loan shark is a man we'd dismiss in a minute as a no-account hustler: he's strictly smalltime; more flash than substance; and much more concerned with bedding high school girls than he is much anything else. But for the little seed crystal of information he has, he'd be harmless to anyone but Kuniko - and the high school girls - and in reality, no serious, mean threat to her in any case. Save the case where he has the partial goods on her, she has debts, and, well, if everything and everyone is for sale at some price, you can figure out the rest.

Further complicating the scheme is the ships-passing-in-the-night relationship between the deceased Yamamoto and quasi-yakuza club owner Satake, the man who didn't kill him but to the authorities, especially and fortunately to the authorities, looks and smells just like he did. But that's where I must cease describing the convoluted switchbacks of Kirino's novel; perhaps I should have stopped someplace earlier. In reviewing a mystery novel, the thorough plot summary is a virtual impossibility - you might as well read the book; the point of criticism is not to synopsize for the hesitant reader - as by their very nature, even awful mystery novels go to great lengths to throw in everything and the kitchen sink. And Kirino in her approach to mystery fiction is no different than any other. She pens plot twists galore, though they are mostly evident, not only to the swift reader but the rather dull one as well. Still she pulls off a captivating tale of murder gone right, cover-up gone wrong and the cascade of intrigues attendant that sort of plot. Kirino is adept at anticipating the domino effect in her writing and she puts it to good use in Out; never does she resort to hackneyed devices, unbelievable coincidences or any of the other hobgoblins that camp out round the fire of many modern mystery novels.

But, as previously proclaimed, for me Out was a horror novel, not a mystery novel. There's not much mystery, much sleuthing or detecting: Kirino lays the whole thing bare from page one, yet she describes the murders, dismemberment, disposals and, more importantly, the often twisted psychological underpinnings of the players, with a keen literary knife that squarely places her, through my western lens, in the forefront of talented horror novelists. Her prose is good, solid contemporary Japanese fare: exactly what I've come to expect of her ilk. Or is it the combination of Japanese writing and English translation? No matter, as the end result for the western reader is a satisfying if chill-inducing - please shutter the windows - experience.

Must I record one complaint, it is Kirino's use of the double-perspective at the end of Out. Employing what I term the double-perspective - that is, telling a slice of the story from one character's angle and then immediately, without pause, retelling the same scene from the viewpoint of another character - is typically how novelists with a short manuscript on their hands coax another 10,000 words out of it. Otherwise, double-perspective should only be used when it adds something significant to the plot, when the secondary perspective is entirely essential to wrapping the story up tight. But Out is not a short book, and Kirino had no need to stretch it. Likewise, she doesn't offer enough additional insight in the secondary perspective to make it worth our while - it's a chunk of prose the reader is inclined to skip over. But she only does it once, and for that she can be mostly pardoned.

If you're looking for a straight-up mystery where you're as dumbfounded by oblique events throughout the novel as the surly cop or the wool-cloaked detective, then you'll likely not favor Out. However, if you pine for an exceptionally well-written swath of the horrific, replete with clean prose and a very practiced hand at storytelling, Kirino fills that bill and more. Out has already been adapted to a successful film in Japan. You can make a sure bet that the American movie rights are locked up or soon will be, and close at hand, likely a western film adaptation of this novel. If they do it right, capturing the transient suspense and the indwelling sociopathy without steeping us in the gore, they'll have a certain blockbuster at the box office. Out by Natsuo Kirino (translated by Stephen Snyder)
Kodansha International
ISBN: 4770029055
359 Pages