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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #33 (August 19, 2008), page 16.
Beauty, like fiction, is more than skin deep
By Natsuo Kirino
Translation by Rebecca Copeland
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
Hardcover, 467 pages, $24.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Natsuo Kirino’s first book translated into English, Out, was an odd little novel about a group of oppressed Japanese women who form a body disposal cartel. I didn’t utterly dislike it, but was skeptical of its supposed feminism, in part because the protagonist fantasized about being raped and killed by her antagonist — not the best recipe for a strong female character. Kirino’s swirling new novel, Grotesque, takes on similar ideas of sex, violence, and feminism, but with far stronger results. Told from multiple points of view, the book explores the relationship between a plain woman and her strikingly beautiful older sister, reaching conclusions about true beauty and its effects on women (and men) on both sides of the Pacific.
While Out seemed to be a more traditional thriller, Grotesque is closer to a murder mystery, at least of the procedural variety. The protagonist — the ugly, never-named sister — wants to understand how and why her beautiful sister and another prostitute were brutally killed. She addresses the reader directly, sometimes sounding metafictional, other times like she’s defending herself to a lawyer or judge. These sections are interspersed with others in which different characters take over the narrative in diary or deposition form, adding to the postmodern feel.
By skillfully braiding these many threads together, Kirino creates a story that is both slightly puzzling and utterly dazzling. To try and relate the entire narrative here would be both telling and unnecessary; part of the joy of the book, as with any murder mystery, is in untangling the plot, but it is also secondary to the ideas that lie underneath. Many postmodern metafictional conceits become flashy parlor tricks of the author, a kind of neon sign pointing to their own cleverness. But Kirino stays firmly in the background, instead allowing her characters to express their own manifold agendas.
Yuriko, the gorgeous sister, shows not only how beauty leads to the favorable way beautiful people are treated, but also how beautiful people completely absorb this treatment. When we hear about Yuriko — who has always gotten what she wants, has always been the foil through which her sister sees her own diametrically opposed ugliness — we expect her to be a monster. It is stunning to hear her voice and to understand that she has her own problems with her damaged and vengeful younger sister, even as we see Yuriko’s own flaws. She has learned to exploit her own beauty for its effect on men while being clearly damaged by her own history of sexual abuse.
The narrator, as a deliberately unnamed character, tries to hide her own anonymous ugliness by following her older sister into prostitution, to the detriment of her own promising corporate job. Instead of relying on her own intelligence to get ahead, she conforms to the ideals of Yuriko, confusing sex with love, and conflating being paid for sex with being considered beautiful. Her search for her sister’s killer thus becomes more about understanding the mystery of Yuriko and the far different world she inhabited.
This tension between sisters points to Kirino’s concern with the effects of physical beauty, an issue for women in the East or West, as both cultures demand women present themselves at their best, and we judge them accordingly. We all become familiar with how this affects the way women (and all people) are treated. The homely girl is presumed to be intelligent and clever because she can never succeed with her looks. And we forgive even the worst flaws of the beautiful girl when she allows her gaze to rest, even momentarily, on us. Both girls become twisted as a result of this treatment, which we see in how they see themselves and one another.
By revealing her characters more than unravelling the plot, Kirino shows us that Grotesque is not the thriller it may at first appear to be. When we come to the end of the book and don’t really know whom we should believe, and therefore can’t entirely understand what has happened with the murders at the center of the novel’s action, this is consistent with Kirino’s agenda. To presume beauty or ugliness from the initial impressions we get is as mistaken as the idea that we can ever truly know what’s happening in a book or a person. Appearances can be deceiving, and beauty and ugliness can twist back and forth, each revealing itself as the other until we cannot tell truth from self-expressed fiction. In the end, Kirino demonstrates not only that beauty can mask ugliness (and vice versa) but that we can also know nothing about people or fiction from what we see on the surface.