Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

colorlestsWay back in highschool, Tsukuru Tazaki was the fifth person in an inseparable group of friends. After meeting in a volunteer program, they did everything together as a pentagonal unit. Then, suddenly, after Tsukuru left their provincial hometown to go to engineering school in Tokyo, he was cut off. His hitherto steadfast friends stopped answering his calls and one of them phoned to explain that none of them ever wanted to be contacted by or see Tsukuru ever again. Utterly baffled by this turn of events, he fell into a depressive void at college that he barely survived and went on to have a fairly unremarkable life. Tsukuru rarely got close to another person ever again.

Now thirty six years old and finally dating someone he actually might love, said date tells him that he clearly still has emotional baggage lingering from his friend breakup. Thus, Tsukuru Tazaki sets off to locate each of his friends and discover what happened to cause his severance.

OK, it’s true. You can play Murakami Bingo. He has a set of tropes that repeat in all of his novels. Mysterious women. Alter egos. Cats. Dream sex. Name brand whiskey. When I first read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I was blown away. Then I read a few more of his novels and became progressively let down that so much of it repeats. But now I’ve come around, come to terms with the recycling. There’s nothing terribly wrong with utilizing the same ideas, rearranging the same story or reusing the same hero with slight differences. I think as a reader you just have to be prepared for it (and only read the guy every few years).

I am not sure how much of the above realization fed into my enjoyment of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, but it was my favorite Murakami novel since Wind Up Bird. The central mystery — why Tsukuru was kicked out of the group — is intriguing, and when half-way through the book, the mystery is partially revealed, only more questions arise. That very little of them are answered doesn’t matter.

Murakami’s style is withdrawn and subdued. No one ever seems to act with passion (indeed, part of Tsukuru’s character arc is learning to make bold, passionate moves). Characters hardly react to world-shaking events or emotional trauma. There’s a peculiar cadence that marks the characters and the dialogue itself. Everyone talks in the same measured tone, punctuated by commas. They answer each other in complete sentences:

Reader, would you like fries with that?

Yes writer, I honestly would like fries with that, thank you for asking.

It sort of feels like Murakami is in the room with you, sipping whiskey at measured intervals and speaking in an entirely monotone voice. Also, you are blindfolded. Half-asleep. But it’s pleasant enough.