A few months ago I wrote about Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque, which I found disturbing and yet compelling. As promised then, I've had my eye out for the release of her new book, which finally happened July 15th. The book is called Real World and, not surprisingly, I found it disturbing and compelling. My only complaint with it is that it isn't long enough, only 207 pages. The last time that I read a book so slim, I was the age of the characters in this book.
There are five teenagers at the center of this novel, four female friends and the boy next door who ruins their lives. Worm, the boy next door, is a dark, little, twisted creature that I never really got a good grasp on. I'm not sure if he's psychotic or just pressed too hard against the wall of growing up, but it's clear that he's a sociopath. He begins the story by killing his mother with a baseball bat, very calmly leaving his house and heading off for a life on the run. Along the way, he steals his neighbor's bike and cellphone.
When Toshi, Worm's neighbor, hears about the crime, she realizes that she has key information, having witnessed the noise made by the murder and Worm's calm departure from the house. However, she decides to lie to the police and her family and continues to protect him throughout the novel. It's not as if they are friends; she barely knows him and doesn't like what she does know but cheers for his escape due to her own psychological demons.
All the teens in this book are hanging on to society's edges with one tiny claw. There's Yanzu who receives the first call from Worm, using Toshi's stolen cellphone. Yanzu is struggling to find a comfortable place uniting her family life and school friends with her underground life as a lesbian. She is the first to help Worm by providing him with a new cellphone and bike and returning the stolen ones.
Kirinin has problems with her sexuality as well. By day, a happy go lucky, innocent schoolgirl but every night she goes to Seedyville and has as much casual sex and she can before morning. She becomes fascinated with the idea of the rebel Worm and runs off to join him. She wants a new life and he seems the perfect answer. Unfortunately, he is not what she thought and things end badly.
Our best hope for a normal view of teenage Japan seems to be Terauchi. She is bright, studious, seemingly well grounded and sane. She rejects Worm's attempts to draw her into his drama - outright rejection at first, later playing coy to keep things under control once Kirinin joins him. But her life is just as angsty as the next kid's. She is contemptuous of her schoolwork and her family has created a situation for her that is intolerable. Her calm exterior just covers the lack of life that lies within.
Things come to a head and our teens start falling like dominoes. Kirino's point is that the culture around teens is very unhealthy and it's amazing any of them make it out unscathed. Toshi rants against commercialism. Worm seems to be burdened and yet under the spell of Japan's military history. Terauchi's childhood innocence has been destroyed by a social structure that demands scholastic excellence. Kirinin's problems clearly come from all the sexual crosscurrents that buffet her (and us) daily.
Natsuo Kirino's books get classified as Mystery in bookstores but I'm not so sure that they should. The mystery at the heart of her novels is not "Who did the crime and will he/she be caught?" It is the mystery of what goes on inside us that makes us act as we do and that's what I love about her books, the inner darkness of the human mind.