By Natsuo Kirino

The word “grotesque” literally signifies the kind of art that comes from the grotto. The grotto in question was not a real grotto or cave, but the remains of Nero’s unfinished palace that were discovered in the fifteenth century. The frescoes and wall decorations that received the label grotesque were noted for their unnaturalness, depicting fanciful, distorted forms that blended animal and vegetable elements with purely imaginary creations. Grotesque as it is used today retains these original connotations, but its meaning has oozed a bit over the years, coming to stand for anything ugly, monstrous, or out of the ordinary.

The title of this novel refers to the way a group of four Japanese women are perverted and made into monsters, grotesques, by sex, greed, and conformity. Graduates of the same highly-regarded girls’ high school (Q High School for Young Women), they become the playthings of a grimly naturalistic fate that eventually casts them into a criminal underworld of prostitution and murder.

The typical formula for naturalistic fiction is that a character’s fate is the result of hereditary and environmental forces. Its heroes and heroines are first and foremost victims, even if they sometimes take on the role of predator in the social jungle. They are less individuals than products. And the process that shapes their fate is also one that can warp and deform them. They are born outsiders, and by attempting to fit in to what is presented as the natural (acceptable, legal) order they are inevitably destroyed.

Grotesque begins with the main narrator – a dull person whose name people can’t seem to remember – pondering the mysteries of how genetic material is shared in the process of conception, which is the logical place for a naturalistic novel to begin. It is also a logical concern of the narrator’s because she is “half”: the offspring of a Japanese mother and European father. And the mystery of heredity is even more of a fixation for her because her own life is so dominated by the presence of her younger sister Yuriko, a girl so “diabolically beautiful” she is a “monster.”

What really sets the ball rolling, though this isn’t revealed until near the end, is the curiosity of a biology teacher at Q High School with a passion for insects and bugs. One immediately thinks of Zola’s vision of the naturalist author as scientist treating the novel as a kind of laboratory experiment for studying effects. Yuriko applies to the Q School but isn’t nearly bright enough to get in. Professor Kijima, however, seeing “the potential of conducting a biological study of what happens when a mutant member of a species is introduced into a population,” gets her in. The results are disastrous. Yuriko, a man-hating and frigid nymphomaniac, becomes a glamorous child prostitute. This in turn plays havoc with the frail psyche of Kazue, a pathologically conformist overachiever whose passion to control her life lead her on the familiar downward spiral of physical degradation, humiliation, crime, and a squalid end.

Shifting between different points of view, from a framing first-person narrative to diaries to letters to police reports, Kirino creates a complex feminist portrait of contemporary Japan as a fatal psychological environment from which there is no escape. Within that environment some are born monsters and others warp themselves. But even in the latter case the naturalistic specimen is still a victim. This perspective complements Kirino’s bleak view of Japan’s misogynist culture. No matter how independent and intelligent they may seem, a woman needs what only a man can provide. And so they are driven to become whores. But the feminist message isn’t entirely persuasive. The men we meet seem to only be introduced to provide basic basic plot functions. Instead, the role of prostitute is a reflection of something larger, a way of imagining naturalism’s view of the individual as product taken to its logical extreme in a super-consumerist and conformist society. One where the pure products of capitalism go grotesque.

Review first published online June 4, 2007.

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