What if The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were about ordinary people rather than Jason Bourne-like superwomen and counter-conspirators? Oh, and, if it were actually written by a woman?
Natsuo Kirino answered the question long before The Millennium Trilogy was even drafted. Her 1997 book Out is by no means new, but for a first-time reader it still leaps from the page with an arresting freshness. The issues she addresses in the novel are both depressingly urgent and familiar, and Kirino is a masterful psychoanalyst of her characters’ inner lives.
Out begins as the story of four women who share the night shift at a factory in suburban Tokyo making boxed lunches. When one of them kills her abusive husband, she avails herself of the only resource available to her: her friends on the factory line. Led by the book’s unarguable protagonist, Masako, and bound by a strange solidarity, they proceed to dispose of the body in grisly fashion.
The book embraces its hard-boiled potential early on, and the tension comes almost entirely from the drama around the immediate aftermath of the crime, with rather standard anxieties driving the plot: will one of the conspirators talk? Are the detectives getting too close? Will the body stay hidden?
But the thickness of the book’s remainder under one’s right thumb suggests that much more than simple answers to these whodunit questions are forthcoming, and that’s where Out parts ways from standard crime drama in spectacular fashion.
In the back half of the book Kirino reveals herself to be a terrifying tribune of patriarchal psychology: down there in the dark, she gives the reader eloquent tours of nearly every character’s psyche and convincingly founds their motivations in the myriad distortions that both sexism and capitalism ruthlessly impose on people. Remarkably, she does this without sententious moralising, and though astute readers will see feminist analysis throughout the text, one never feels as if she’s doing assigned reading in a Women’s Studies class. Kirino’s skill is in conveying the unpretentious, matter-of-fact obviousness of patriarchy. If sexism is to us like water is to fish, then Kirino eloquently describes the water in a way that is neither obtrusive nor polemical.
Part of how she accomplishes this is by giving readers a story without any real “good guys” to speak of, applying this old noir literary tool to the psychology of patriarchy.
Masako is a fascinating portrait of strength hemmed in by a mediocrity imposed from within and without, but it is she who comes up with the gruesome fashion of disposing of the body that becomes such a central theme in the book. The other characters find themselves drawn in by an admixture of solidarity, helplessness, and poverty—everything from possible life insurance money to the bills in the deceased husband’s pocket are used to buy silence and complicity among the desperately poor women. Truly coming to understand why they do what they do—why one of them killed her husband, why she copes with it the way she does, why each of her co-workers helps her—is where the real joy in reading this book comes from.
It is not an apologia for murder, nor a cheap revenge fantasy in the way so many more hamfisted “feminist” stories tend to be. The crime and its coverup are presented as perverse, almost inevitable perturbations created by the quiet desperation of womanhood in modern society, and yet everyone is—down to their marrow—responsible and culpable for what they do. Kirino excels at describing this in detail that is neither evasive nor scrupulously apolitical.
Kirino’s writing is unabashedly feminist, and she excels herself by psychoanalysing not just the traumas that distort the humanity of the book’s women, but also the men in the story. She manages, for instance, the remarkable trick of making a man who sexually assaults one of the characters into a somewhat sympathetic figure, crushed beneath the weight of racism, the broken dreams of international migration, and his own childlike mentality. Like everything else in the book, Kirino is never out to justify or excuse the crimes she describes—rather, she expertly demonstrates with literary timeline upon literary timeline how an ordinary person can fall so very far so very easily. The nature of the fall, however, is distinctly gendered.
As Masako’s character unravels before the eyes of the reader, one witnesses a rare and profoundly unsettling literary masterstroke, which is accomplished by making Masako’s life something of a duet with a male antagonist (and to name him would, sadly, spoil things a bit much). He is at once a monster–a man whose murders and rapes are far more sickening than those words can convey–and yet also profoundly human. Kirino paints a compelling portrait of the misogynist demon that refuses caricature without flinching from the terrifying, murderous potential immanent to such people. The way this man is compared and contrasted with Masako, and the way they interact, gives the book a stunning heft.
This kind of thing is both rare and necessary. It’s still tragically unusual to encounter a well-written novel that makes patriarchy so three dimensional, and in a way that is not entirely unsympathetic to the way it also distorts and malforms the morality of men, while also not suggesting facile false equivalences.
The book’s major flaw is that one of the four woman is incongruously and inexplicably a relentlessly annoying caricature, defined by her weight, her spendthrift vanity, and little else. As with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Guinevere in The Mists of Avalon, we’re forced to read a bizarrely sexist cardboard cutout of a female character amidst well-drawn complex characters for no discernible reason. Her character flaws mark her out for fatal hatred from the author in a way that none of the other characters’ myriad sins do. Kirino is able to take us inside the head of a rapist, but is somehow powerless to make this hapless woman, who is central to the plot, come to life.
“Out” is a simple word that casts a very long shadow from the book’s title. Among many other meanings, it describes quest to get “out” and away from the fetters of commodification, fetishisation, or “the problem with no name.” How each woman gets out—or doesn’t—is, in essence, what the book is about, and per its grim diagnosis unspeakable acts are demanded of women who wish to escape capitalism and patriarchy. “Out” has a perilously high price.
The entire story is a sensual experience that brings working class life and its myriad traumas come to life in transcendental fashion. Mirroring is a motif in the story; characters and experiences are routinely played off each other and compared, directly or indirectly. Pivotal scenes are rendered with a compound gaze from the perspective of multiple characters, which really pays off in the book’s climax. This mirroring allows Kirino to make the most of her book’s subject, with commentary emerging in interesting places. The work of cutting up a body is tacitly likened to the alienation and drudgery of working on the factory floor: brutal repetitive work that requires an out-of-body-experience to endure, performed under penurious necessity.
The story owns its Japanese setting but, unsurprisingly, eschews the accumulated detritus of stereotypes and Orientalist clichés about the country, instead giving us a clear picture that anyone in the West should be able to relate to. The gauze of exoticisation is ripped away and we have in its place a perspicacious terror that makes for both a convincing story and a stirring feminist analysis. And, dare I say it, an intersectional one at that. Class, race, and gender all weave their way into Kirino’s bleak story. It’s yet another reminder that we should, as ever, refuse to take those essentialist, cultural relativist bromides about unbridgeable differences between cultures seriously.
Kirino’s lyrical prose reminds us what “human” means in all its darkness, and makes a peerless case for the humanity of women in the process.
Katherine Cross is not a fan of cultural relativism, in case you couldn’t tell.