Natsuo Kirino’s Out is truly a universal tale, meaning a truly multiculturally applicable novel, meaning one that will be understood anywhere in the world where there are loan sharks, illegal casinos, and middle-aged working-class women toiling like galley slaves on the night shift in grueling dead-end assembly-line jobs. In this case the gig is packing prefab food into lunch boxes from midnight to 6 a.m. only to return home to abusive, cheating husbands who blithely relate how they’ve gambled away the family savings before punching wifey in the gut, or docile deadbeats who run off with all her pay, or dour, self-absorbed types disinterested in everything about the little woman—her mind, pussy, problems—save her penchant for putting dinner on the table like clockwork. This doesn’t begin to describe the all-around appeal of various children (and in one case an infantile mother-in-law) who are either young and needy, ‘ho-ing and greedy, or expert in the use of silence as a passive-aggressive weapon. None more so than the son who, in the first words his mother has heard from him in years, nearly sells her out to the police, then cries out “Thanks for nothing, bitch,” when she informs she might be leaving the family.
True to that maxim, “Don’t let a woman tell it because she’ll tell it all,” Out may be the most ghetto Japanese novel you ever read. It contains all the necessary genre ingredients and then some: a murder, a corpse-dismembering enterprise, a disintegrating team of co-conspirators, a yakuza sociopath, a yakuza extortionist. The vive la différence in this case is that the murderer is the perfect housewife, her accessories-to-murder are her girls from the assembly line, and both yakuza cats, the sociopath and the loan shark, secretly fall in love with the assembly line gang’s hardtack, worldly ringleader, Musake, whom glass-ceiling misogyny drove from corporate life to bento-box wage slavery.
The scarily omniscient Kirino knows not only everybody’s business but everybody’s mind—her way with interior monologue is pungent and prismatic, shuffling between characters’ ill-ass reveries on the same insane incident. There is a lot here about Japanese sexism, of the ageist and pedophilic kind, and the psychology of Japanese female self-loathing and existential despair. Like Walter Mosley she exploits the beat-down potential of the hard-boiled novel to depict life on society’s bottom in ways that subtly read as one part social protest, one part sadomasochistic entertainment. Perhaps the most pointedly Japanese aspect of Kirino’s writing is the way she eroticizes, even romanticizes, sexual violence, up to, and including, two homicidal rapes. As much as the Japanese are supposed to be enamored of all things American, after reading Kirino you can easily believe Western feminism never became the rage.