Mary Gaitskill on Natsuo Kirino

Out by Natsuo Kirino is a murder mystery even though you know who the killer is in the first fifty pages, which is when the first crime gets committed. There are a number of crimes after that, and you know who commits them too.  Kirino's characterizations aren't mysterious; you know who is weak, who is strong, who is stupid and who is shrewd, and you know—indeed, you keep being reminded—that these four classifications are apparently all that matters in terms of the author's moral empathy. As you read, you understand that Kirino detests weakness, is suspicious of emotionality, particularly as it is related to weakness, and that she admires strength and intelligence above all else, even when it is combined with ruthlessness and cruelty. "Compassion" is a term of rather smug approbation in mainstream American literary culture, and if compassion for weak or unappealing characters is a primary standard of value, Out flunks. But here is another mystery: although Kirino is near-pitiless in her depiction of her characters, especially the weakest and dumbest one whom she baths in contempt before sadistically killing off, the book is saturated with a profound and anguished pity, a sorrow that makes the American literary ideal of "compassion" look as cheap as it usually is.

The plot of the book centers on four discontent middle-aged women who work the late shift at a dismal lunch-box factory. Masako and Yayoi are stuck in loveless marriages, Yayoi to an abusive fool who gambles away their life savings. Yoshie is a widow trapped taking care of ungrateful kids and a bed-ridden mother-in-law.  Kuniko is a fat, vain dullard, in hock to loan sharks because she can't control any of her appetites.

It's not giving away much to reveal that Yayoi snaps and kills her worthless husband, and that, because she is too weak to handle the aftermath of the crime, she turns to the tough, resourceful Masako for help. Masako decides that dismemberment is the way to go and she doesn't so much ask for help as extort it from the relentlessly practical Yoshie who owes Masako for a loan. The idiotic Kuniko bumbles onto the crime scene because she's looking for a loan too and so gets enlisted in cutting up the corpse. Kuniko, being fat and weak, is naturally too incompetent to get anything right, including the proper disposal of the body parts, which are discovered. The murder gets pinned on a nightclub owner and pimp named Satake, an elegant, impotent man with a grim and, in the language of this book, alluring secret. That is when things start to get interesting.

Part of what is mysterious about Kirino's novel is the way that the crudeness of characterization and moral outlook (strength: good, weakness: bad), rather than being merely ham-fisted, translate as visceral depth and a kind of ferocious allegiance to harsh reality. An American literary writer would want to reveal something surprising about Kuniko, some redeeming charm or secret intelligence; some integrity or hidden strength—at the very least, an ordinary goodness that would give her death dignity and/or pathos. This is a contemporary idea of complexity and it is realistic to be sure; few people are definable by three or four traits, and even when three or four traits are paramount in a person, they are often dynamically related to their opposites.

However, this "idea of complexity" can become a convention, a duty to be done for the comfort of the reader as much as anything, and it is curiously bracing to read a writer of clear intelligence and depth who has no interest in such conventions or comfort. Why does Yayoi kill her husband? She is angry because he hit her and spent their money.  Why do her co-workers agree to cut him up? They need money. Simple motives, blunt and powerful—yet Kirino plays against the simplicity and the power with subtle notes such as her brief description of the oldest of the women, Yoshie:  "...all she had was her pride, goading her to keep working no matter how hard it was.  Yoshie had wrapped up everything personal that mattered in a tight package and stored it away somewhere far out of sight, and in its place she had developed a single obsession: diligence. This was her trick for getting by." In this way she shares something with the pimp Satake, a sort of brutal devotion to form that makes him particularly hard on a client he sees behaving aggressively with his "top girl": "Yamamoto was way out of his league by any standards...just as they were rules in gambling there were rules in this game as well; and it made Satake, who was himself so scrupulous, furious to see someone like Yamamoto ignoring them."

This fanatic hewing to form over feeling comes to seem like a kind of violence itself—yet, it is that fanatic dignity rather than sentiment which connects the characters to something beyond their desperation and venality. It is Yoshie (called "the Skipper" at work because she's so efficient) who says, after the women have systematically chopped up the corpse: "But I can't help thinking...that he might even be glad that we did this to him.  I mean, when I used to read about these dismemberings, I thought it sounded terrible.  But it's not really like that, is it?  There's something about taking somebody apart so neatly, so completely, that feels almost respectful." And in the context of their bickerings, jokes about saws and decisions about what to do with the victim's head, what she says makes total sense.  As they prepare to put it all into "city-approved garbage bags" and drop it off in various locations to be "incinerated along with the rest of the garbage in Tokyo", murder gets blended with daily life in a way that is both matter-of-fact and reverent.

But it is through her protagonist Masako that Kirino reveals her depth of feeling most.  Even more than the others, Masako is a woman who cares about rigor, dignity and strength—form over feeling. Yet she chooses the forms she cares about, and that does not include her family, the most socially approved form of all in every culture. She decides to help Yayoi not because she needs money but finally because she is bored and restless to the point of despair. She is sarcastic about Yoshie's reverence when speaking of the victim's head, yet it is she who returns to the place she buried it:  "A small mound of fresh earth was visible in the undergrowth, the only sign of what she'd done. Summer was reaching its peak and the woods smelled of life, richer and fuller even than when she'd been here ten days ago.  She pictured Kenji's head turning to pulp in the ground, becoming part of the earth.  Becoming food for worms and insects. It was a gruesome thought, but also somehow comforting—she had given the head to the creatures underground."

It is in this moment of impersonal emotion that a kind of mercy is allowed, not particularly for the small, flawed person that was Kenji, but for all of life, the strange unknowable form of it that Kirino's characters each in their own way (except for the sloppy and therefore reprobate Kuniko) try to honor. This will to honor the large forces that compel us will find its most dramatic expression in the final scene between Masako and Satake. It is a violent and, for all its squalor—indeed in part because of its squalor—it is a romantic scene, drawing heavily on the fantasy erotics of murder maybe a bit too romantically for a book psychologically built on such a grim devotion to commonsensical reality.

Yet, while you are reading it you don't care if it's too romantic, you don't even care if it's realistic, psychologically speaking.  It feels real beyond psychology, beyond the formal constraints of life that Kirino and her characters have obeyed humbly or proudly, real in the way that the creatures who will eat Kenji's head are real and always with us regardless of who we are and what we think we are doing.  By the time we get to the last scene, we are longing for feeling, longing for all constraint to be broken—we get it, drenched in anguish, pity and sorrow. Masako has longed for freedom and she will have it, at the expense of everything else. It is Kirino's great gift that she makes us believe in her heroine's willingness to pay this expense, and to walk mysteriously, triumphantly into nothingness.