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Natsuo Kirino's new novel is a brilliant contemplation of the idea of beauty itself. As in Goya's charcoaled atrocities, her book skillfully portrays gruesome human intimacies, offering us the troubling character studies of Japanese school girls turned prostitutes.
The unnamed narrator and older, uglier sister of the mostrous beauty and destructive nymphomaniac Yuriko ("My first man was my father's younger brother Karl") begins the novel:
"Whenever I meet a man, I catch myself wondering what our child would look like if we were to make a baby."
Already we're on the scent of some Freudian destiny like a curse! This is a murder-mystery that is as much an inquiry into the biology of human hatred as it is a contemplation of the sexual-political dynamics for women in our time.
Throughout the novel the relationship of the narrator and her sister Yuriko (half Japanese, half Swiss) paints a portrait of sibling loathing, from childhood jealousies to Yuriko's eventual murder. Where Yuriko embodies the superficial, but socially real superiority of those deemed physically beautiful, our narrator represents an intellectual master who seems to plot all of the figures of the book against one another like chess pieces as she descends into a personal game of emotional disaffection. Here, she deftly explains the dynamics between Kirino's character types:
"Not yet adults ourselves, we sought to protect ourselves from potential wounds by turning the tables on our perceived aggressors and being the ones to launch the attack. But it grew tiresome being a constant target, and those who clung to their injuries were surely not destined to live long. So I worked on refining my maliciousness. . . "
One thing I really loved about the novel was Kirino's marvelous scrutiny of beauty as an ideal that results in an underscored commentary on the relationship between disparate social figures: upper-class politicians, middle-class workers, and the poor turned criminal. In her book, the layer of perception that affects romantic attraction between individuals also affects stereotypes for classes of people who are marginalized, especially prostitutes and illegal immigrants, who may lead unsavory lives, but who are faced with real economic and political struggles. The Chinese convict and murderer Zhang is ironically the only man in the book capable of offering a Japanese woman a real orgasm and the only person in the novel able to inspire real love. In this book, those on the edge of capitalist conformity must struggle with the whimsical fantasies of the inner circle of superficially rich (and symbolically attractive "beautiful people" marked by their wealth and political status) who have determined the hardships of the poor, forcing them into criminal depravity. On the other end of the spectrum is the character Kazue, who might be a feminist so extreme she ruins herself with her own sexual mobility as she transforms into a successful business woman who also prostitutes nightly simply because she can.
Much has already been written about the fact that Kirino's portayal of Japanese life is less than romantic, as it has been recently idealized by the U.S. media with portrayals of ancient refinements and emotional restraint, but what's really astonishing about this book is how her character studies offer us a post-modern but equivalent contemplation of the themes that obsessed Mishima and Nabokov in their era. Each of the girls in this novel pursues a different demon to equally devastating consequences. Kirino's prose is fresh and accessible, and her notion that human desire is itself a curse transforms girlhood into variable greeds of classical descent (sexual, economic, spiritual, political) each of them destructive and vengeful.
Friends and Strangers, Kirino's GROTESQUE is a real tragedy for contemporary audiences, complete with Shakesperean darkness and psychological warfare. This is a book of unexpected but timely Ophelias, returned from the drowning waters, stunningly alive, fully garlanded with opaque but ruinous obsessions, to take their place as major players in the outcome of our troubled kingdom.
If I had the money I'd buy you a copy!
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This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
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