Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out is not a recent book. It was published in Japan in 1997 and in English in 2003. This Vintage International edition came out January 2005.

If someone asked me for a one or two word description to help them decide if Out was a book for them,  I would call it feminist noir. A staff member at The Mysterious Bookshop recommended it as excellent noir which the reason I purchased it since I was unfamiliar with the author. I wasn't disappointed.

The setup is simple: physically abused by her husband, Yayoi Yamamoto snaps and strangles him. Panicked, she calls Masako Katori, a co-worker on the boxed lunch assembly line where they both work the night shift. Masako decides they need to dispose of the body and gets two other co-workers, Yoshie Azuma and Kuniko Jonouchi to assist with getting rid of the body while Yayoi builds her alibi. They accomplish the task in a way that is notable for its grisliness and the matter of fact way the women approach it. The improvised plan looks like it could succeed but the extramarital actions of the murdered man and the personalities and habits of the four women make exposure more and more likely. The story takes a turn in the middle that establishes it as solidly noir but also edges it toward thriller.

The women of Out are treated as objects, sometimes valuable objects, but objects nonetheless. Anna, a secondary character who works in a hostess club run by Satake who becomes the nemesis of the four women, come to this awakening with the realization that
Maybe it was the same with men: they wanted women the same way she'd wanted the poodle, and she meant no more to Satake then the dog did to her.
Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko, and Yayoi are victims of men and the rigid society in which they live. They all want out of their current existence. They are treated with indifference or neglect or abandonment or violence in one form or another. They are doing jobs nobody else is willing to do. Masako compares herself to a washing machine run without putting the laundry:
Disolved in a whirlpool, drained, rinsed, and spun dry—it was precisely what they had done to her. A pointless spin cycle, she thought, laughing out loud.
The one act of female solidarity, disposing of the body, doesn't last long, leaving them as much alone at the end as in the beginning.

For me, the strength of Out is in the way the characters are developed, all the characters and not only the four women at the core of the story. The author progressively pulls away layers revealing the person underneath. No one is particularly likable. It is possible to empathize with and come to understand and perhaps relate to these characters but there are none that I liked. The only character that goes through the story as an (mostly) innocent observer is Roberto Kazuo Miyamori, half Brazilian and half Japanese, who works in the same factory as the four women. Alienated from the culture of his Japanese father, Kazu, lonely and desperate to connect with another person, becomes pathetically obsessed with Masako.

I'm still not sure about the ending. Is it positive? Is there hope? If anyone who reads this review has also read the book, please leave a comment with your thoughts on the last 18 pages.

Out is well plotted with excellent character development. I recommended it to readers who can handle noir mixed with some grisly ingredients. The translation by Stephen Snyder reads smoothly with no awkwardness.


petronatwo said...

Excellent review, Mack. I did own this book once but in the end decided against it as it seemed to be too strong medicine for me. I enjoyed your review very much, though.

Dorte H said...

Like Maxine, I think feminist noir will be too strong a coctail for me. It is good to hear about writers who create intriguing characters, though.

Barbara said...

We discussed this book at 4MA some time ago and I found it fascinating but dark - and at this remove (having forgotten the details) one of the most depressing things that sticks with me was the everyday lives of the women involved, the drudgery of their work, the hopelessness of it. Enlivened with a spot of butchery now and again.

...I just went back and reread bits of our discussion. I thought at the time that she would catch the plane, but it was unclear whether it would be a happy ending. She will have at least gotten "out" but whether it's any better out there - well, perhaps all one can say is it isn't likely to be as dull.

Mack said...

Thanks all for your comments.

Dorte and Maxine: it is dark and depressing and, as Barbara says, a sense of hopelessness throughout. Kirino does a remarkable job of making the reader feel the lives of these women.

Barbara, I was trying to avoid spoilers but what I have a hard time getting my mind around are the scenes with Mayako and Satake in the abandoned factory. Could Mayako really have been able to accept what Satake was offering?

Barbara said...

I actually have in my notes "did an editor ask her to toss in something lurid here?" No, it jarred for me.

I'm going to be mulling over "feminist noir" for a while. I think of feminism as being critical but also hopeful that things can be better, that unpacking injustice and understanding it is a way of seeking justice. In this case the women seemed to be looking out for each other but then self-interest would rear up and influence their actions. It's definitely noir, and the situations certainly beg for a feminist analysis. But I'm not sure if "feminist" (as in "yikes, this sucks, there has to be a better way") and "noir" (as in "you think this is awful? just wait. It'll get a lot worse") can coexist. Then again, I'm not really in tune with noir so may be simply too tone deaf to pick up the nuances.

Mack said...

You make interesting points Barbara. I thought hard about qualifying noir with feminist and almost didn't do it. I saw Kirino as trying to show us something of the condition of these women, existing within a rigid social structure and the stress these expectations places on them and drives their actions. I was struck by how often the neighbors came up like monitoring the trash pick up area. Here the noir trumps any overcoming of adversity. I don't come across much feminist literature so I don't know if it is legitimate to pair feminist and noir. I think I'll ask the folks in Women's Studies tomorrow.

QueenBe said...

Hi everyone, i'm reading this novel, and I love it so far... I find it fascinating! I'm trying to find the movie to see it online or download it but I can't find it anywhere.. Can you help me? Thank you!