Monday, March 7, 2011

The Real World Is a Dangerous Place

The real world is a dangerous place, and in a novel that manages to grasp that teenage sentiment of "Nobody understands me" while avoiding Holden Caulfield-esque angst, Japanese novelist Natsuo Kirino sets up, like dominos, a chain of relationships and events that topple over, irreparably change the lives of a few teenaged girls. The novel grapples with issues of self-identity and belief, as well as pressing issues like the psychological states of teenagers facing increased pressure to succeed.

This novel, Real World, comes to us in a very conversational tone, courtesy of Philip Gabriel's deft translation and a series of first-person narrators. Symbolically, the novel opens with Toshiko penciling in her eyebrows and the blaring of a smog alarm--indicators that our characters will struggle to draw themselves, distinctly, against suffocating odds. She is about to leave her house for summer break sessions at a cram school when she overhears a ruckus from her neighbors' house. While biking to the train station, she runs into the neighbors' son, a thin boy she calls "Worm," and confronts him about the experience. Worm, however, claims that she must have the wrong house.

But while Toshiko is at the cram school, Worm absconds with her bike and the cell phone that Toshiko left in the basket. He calls Toshiko's friends Terauchi, Yuzan, and Kirarin; in these conversations, Worm confesses to murdering his mother that morning because she pressured him into attending an elite high school where he couldn't succeed. That theft--and the resulting phone calls--are an undertow, sucking the girls into a whirlpool of events that they cannot escape.

The encounters with Worm force Toshiko to tackle her ambitions to remain anonymous; Terauchi, with depression and her mother's affairs; Yuzan, with her homosexuality; and Kirarin, with her disparate personae of sex object and good girl.

Terauchi, whose depression jades her observations with a considered nihilism, speaks of "irreparable" acts--those things that forever alter our realities, our individual abilities to be ourselves. Terauchi says, "I've hidden my distrust of my mother and am doing my best to trust her and love her. But it might not work out. Because I love somebody I don't trust anymore, I've lost all faith in myself....Check it out, Worm. This is what I mean by something irreparable. Not murdering your mother." Terauchi claims--in an object lesson for all of the characters in Real World--that ignoring your real problems fixes nothing. Worm cannot succeed as a student even without his mother. But Terauchi has destroyed her own reality in order to discover this; by internalizing her own problem, by refusing to live with it, she succumbs to her depression as the novel's events careen recklessly forward.

Critics from publications as diverse as the Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice have praised the feminism and the grittiness in Natsuo Kirino's work, and a novel like Real World adds something to this dialogue. These events do not occur in isolation, although our thoughts do. To understand a situation, we have to--like Terauchi--understand the difficulty of relationships, but we must learn to encounter these problems.


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