“Disturbing” is an easy enough way to describe Natsuo Kirino’s Out (translated by Stephen Snyder), but there’s something more uncanny informing such a claim, I would think, when the words “perverse feminism” (along with “vigilante justice”) are used to review the novel.
The quick piece written by Wolff, is of course only a breeding ground for the elaborated thoughts here: but though her article is short and complete, it is those two words above that encapsulate and challenge my own notions of Kirino’s novel.
But what is this idea of being “perverse”? The anti-proper, the dark, the morbid, the clandestine—but even those definitions are neatly categorized and in an elongated plot that starts strong (Out is about how four women who work the graveyard shift at a boxed lunch factory conspire to dispose of a dead body), it doesn’t do much to communicate why this perversion is not merely a literary convention but a calculated move toward questions. Think of it as a motion to block an elusive parry, a more truthful question that sidetracks the entire discussion. It is what happens when, upon flipping a coin, the object does not so much fall on one side as show the one who flips it that there is an underworld where even a woman’s desire for survival suggests that perversion must be essential to the realization of a new life.
Vintage International edition. Translated by Snyder.
Kirino’s novel, though it centers around four women, is really an inquiry into the steel resolve embodied by Masako’s character. That this resolve, in fact, places her on top of the hierarchy among the four becomes clear immediately; she is closely followed by Yoshie, whose fast reflexes at the factory earns her the moniker “Skipper.” Lagging behind them are Kuniko and Yayoi, the latter of which serves as both catalyst and millstone when she finally kills her abusive husband.
The murder of such a figure is understandably liberating and, again, one might be tempted to say, perhaps fitting to be associated with the perverse. Still, it is not the murder itself that upsets, but the new roles that characters play, factory style, when group leader Masako accepts Yayoi’s plea for help to dispose of her husband’s corpse.
True enough, the parallelism between the exacting labor at the factory (imagine a gustatory 90s homage to the first assembly line; massive amounts of beef teriyaki and rice that need to be measured nearly to the last strip or grain per boxed lunch) and the process of working on Kenji’s corpse is a blunt one at best, but it is only through this [translated] bluntness that the work tries to rationalize not only murder’s perverse nature, but also the same nature as found in the troughs of marriage and the need to earn a living.
This is where the first important question surfaces: is the novel perverse merely because it contains gore, as inflicted upon, by, and dealt with by the four women? Would it not be more appropriate to propose that it is perverse because in addition to the politics of such gore, these women must continue to make ends meet, and find solid footing in their respective families? What is remarkable about Kirino’s work is that filial life becomes precisely the reason that the grisly act must be done, and all other consequences of helping Yayoi be faced.
This is true for nearly everyone butMasako—that is, until three-fourths into the novel, when a former colleague, Jumonji, sees business potential in the joint talents of Masako and Yoshie. The two of them, after all, are an efficient pair, slicing Kenji’s corpse over Masako’s covered bathtub, and then placing the parts in forty-so plastic bags. The two are so efficient that the act is almost a butcher’s job except for struggle to slice through rigor mortis, and the sterile way in which the bathroom must be cleaned when the bags have been filled.
Financing the body
In elaborating how financial well-being (not for themselves but for the reinstatement of their validity as women) justifies covering up for Yayoi’s crime, the novel then moves into the area of the dialectic. Might not society, after all, be more perverse than these four women? After all, it is society, as concretized in the characters’ dire filial situations, which demands that on top of keeping odd hours at a backbreaking job, these women assert themselves for extra pocket while remaining subservient to their domestic roles: Yoshie must earn money not merely to provide daily needs but also to satisfy the foolish demands of her two daughters, as well as attend to the child-like needs of her ailing mother-in-law; Yayoi will receive insurance for the death of her husband (mysteriously murdered, the official story goes), but must face the growing demand to pay her friends for scattering the remains of Kenji at different locations. Meanwhile, Kuniko and Masako represent different needs in terms of financial and filial situations. While one faces the need to pay off debt, the other wonders at the possibility of freedom from her silent husband and resentful son.
Although the turn to the body seems inevitable, even expected, at this point, the body that confronts the reader is important, for several reasons: because it is shudder-worthy; because it questions the fate of the four female bodies by the end of the novel; because it proposes that the unknown to which such bodies are thrust is inescapable, and because the bluntness of narration undercuts the freedom Masako had already been moving toward, shortly before brutality subjected her body to the ultimate violation.
A curious realization
That is where the territory becomes unknown, and where I walk on shaky ground—why is this violation essential? And how, then, is it dangerous in this supposedly essential nature? Why does it remain suspicious, despite the fact that Masako seems not only to survive, but also find an opportunity to live a new life for herself, after this terror?
However, because the novel, despite its blunt storytelling, dodges easy questions about motivation, the answers to the above take the form of a coin that exposes an astonishing underbelly. That is, one is prompted to mull over Masako’s violation and the brief period in which it is unclear whether the pleasure she experiences is staged or if she experiences it despite her misgivings and her will to survive (the latter sets alarm bells ringing in my mind). In this way, there is a question of complicity, but wedded to this inquiry is the truth that a new body emerges for Masako—a body which is unrecognizable and perverse, not because of what has been done to her but because of the seeming acceptance with which she wears this new body.
Secondly, on the subject once more of the perverse, it must be said that what happens to Masako is the epitome of what happens to the other three women because it is she who insists on turning the page completely. She is in fact, considering Kuniko especially, the one who has the most will and ability to insist on an entirely new beginning. Moreover, her experience is deemed disgusting not only because it is a crime committed by a male psycopath, but because Masako’s role in it sheds doubt on the new resolve she gains at the end of the novel. True enough none of the others, physically or emotionally, survive the assault on their bodies and financial security the way Masako does—but what is the specific reason for this? If she has been a source of strength, of absolute resolve, since the beginning, can the new body and life she promises to have be considered proof of any meaningful development? Obviously my answer leans toward the negative.
Still, discussing perversion alone leaves the other term in the shadow, which prompts us to ask: is such a novel actually feminist? To be particular, how can feminism (which is already subjected to countless instances of misreading, none of which singularly can or should overthrow the struggle against patriarchy, I believe) become perverse? Is the use of the word “perverse” along with feminism, merely a way of describing the kind of fight Masako and friends put up as “unconventional,” because gory? Or is it perverse only because while society’s expectations for a woman to fulfill both filial and financial obligations are normalized, the spectrum of ways in which women subvert such duties, in contrast, are considered nauseating?