Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"We are yet but young in deed."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Saturday night, rocketlass and I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's production of Macbeth, a high-intensity staging steeped in gore that has left me ever since with one of Macbeth's lines running through my head. Late in Act III, when it has become obvious that his accession to power will not be quite so simple as he and Lady Macbeth had deluded themselves into thinking, Macbeth says to her,
I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
This characterization of Macbeth's dilemma has long been one of my favorite of Shakespeare's images, but this week, as I've been reading Natsuo Kirino's Out (1997, translated into English in 2003 by Stephen Snyder), I've latched onto it as a distillation of the very heart of noir. A character makes one mistake--whether out of weakness, venality, anger, desire, or some other reason matters little--and suddenly everything has changed. The doors to his old life all slam shut, but others creak open . . . and while that's anything but light he sees spilling from them, it's surely still better than the present darkness that's steadily enveloping him, right? Or maybe not . . .

Well, if noir is made of dark choices compounded by more dark choices, Out is about as noir as it gets. I turned to it after reading The Tale of Genji, and it was the perfect antidote: where Lady Murasaki's world is refined, passionate, and ancient, Kirino's world is brutal, cold, and utterly contemporary. She tells of four unhappy women, coworkers on a factory night shift in a Tokyo suburb, who become co-conspirators when one of them murders her husband. Almost before they've given the matter any thought, they're dismembering the body and trying to convince themselves that,
Garbage was a natural by-product of human life; and it was nobody else's business what got thrown away or who did the throwing.
In other words, they've "in blood stepped in so far" that it very quickly becomes obvious that they have little choice other than to make their deadly way forward--but the path they navigate from that point is impressively surprising, and far darker and more gruesome than I'd ever have expected.

The writing is a bit flat at times (The sentences here and there reminded me of the awkwardness of the English versions of Koji Suzuki's Ring novels--could this be a problem of translation?), but Kirino's attention to the realistic details of her characters' lives and world pays off in the creation of a convincing portrait of dead-end life in contemporary Japan, which makes the contrast between the goriness of the women's crimes and the everyday manner in which they set about them all the more effective. Her unflinching attention to the physicality of murder (and eye for black comedy) would do Patricia Highsmith proud, while her adeptness with the ramifications of bad choices brought to mind Scott Smith (though she displays much greater skill in delineating individual psychology).

The ending is, if possible, more troubling than anything else in the book--primarily, I think, because it's the first part of the novel that doesn't fully convince, which makes its horrors much more difficult to take--but it can't ruin a novel that to that point has offered such an entertainingly bleak and nasty ride. What we're left with is a book that you'll be guaranteed to get back within days when you lend it to a friend: lend it to the wrong person and they'll return it in shock after fifty pages; lend it to the right one and they'll hand it back gratefully, sleepless and satisfied. Thanks go to the readers who suggested it when I asked about Japanese crime fiction; I'll definitely be picking up Kirino's other novels soon.

As for those of you who may now be eying the height of the bloody stream and beginning to wonder if we should have crossed at a ford instead of just plunging in, don't worry: the next post will be about Genji, wherein there is no murder, no dismemberment, and no blood. Some angry demons and a lot of poetry, but no blood.

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