REAL WORLD by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf), 208 pages, $27.95 (cloth). Rating: NNN
Japanese critics call real world feminist noir, though I'm not sure why. The novel, set in the suburbs of Tokyo, does have strong female characters and focuses on a clique of teen-aged girls, but its theme is more teen alienation than woman power.
High school student Toshi, who calls herself Ninna Hori because she can't stand her real self, hears a crash from the house beside hers and sees Worm, the weird boy next door, looking really suspicious as he leaves his home. Turns out he's killed his mother with a baseball bat. He's got some self-esteem issues and blames his mum for having brought him into the world.
Toshi and her three friends react in different ways. Toshi worries she'll be seen as complicit in the murder, since Worm has stolen her bike and cellphone in his getaway. Yuzan, a budding young dyke, can't resist lending Worm her support. Kirarin is totally turned on. Terauchi thinks he's an idiot.
Author Natsuo Kirino (Out, Grotesque) taps into cellphone culture in smart ways, making the phone a key player in the events that ensue. These characters are nothing without their toys.
But what's really intriguing about the narrative is the extent to which the kids can't wait to use the murder as an excuse to escape the real world.
The most fascinating segments track Kirarin and the killer after they meet at a love hotel.
Gradually, they lose their grip on reality and begin to create an impenetrable world of their own on the lam. Once they've made their move, they can no longer return to the real world of the title.
Philip Gabriel's translation is clunky and forced at times, but that won't keep you from wanting to walk through the door Kirino opens onto Japanese pop culture and teen experience.