Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Real World

For the past few years, I haven’t read many ‘regular books.’ I’ve read many comics, seen many movies, but for a variety of reasons, haven’t read many prose books. However, with a twenty minute subway ride to work each day, I’ve got more time to read, and have read a bunch of books lately. Over the past couple of days, I read Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, a really powerful suburban noir about a group of teenage girls who get involved with a boy who murders his mother.

The book’s power lies in its use of subjectivity. Each chapter is written in first person, from one of five characters. Notably, it’s not a Rashomon style multiple perspectives on the same events kind of thing, the narrative progresses forward as it passes from character to character, but our perspective on the people involved changes through our immersion in the various subjectivities. The murder plot is the book’s hook, but what was most interesting for me was the examination of social dynamics, between friends and between men and women. In seeing the dichotomy between what people think of themselves and how their friends perceive them, the personas we put on to function in society become clear.

Pretty much every character starts their chapter by describing how her friends can never really understand what’s going on with them, that the friends are all about surface and are unable to have meaningful discussions. There’s always going to be two layers of social interaction, the show we put on to pass the time, joking around and talking about surface things. But, underneath that, there’s another layer, the real sharing of emotions and ideas. This is something that doesn’t happen that often, because it can be painful and dangerous. The more of yourself you put out there, the more people can pounce on your weaknesses. No one is without their secret shame, and if people know what if it is that bothers you the most about yourself, they can use it to hurt you.

That’s the logic of most of the characters here. They won’t threaten the status quo of their friend circle by bringing in real emotions, they just keep it on the surface. We see this in a variety of ways, everyone’s got a secret life. Yuzan’s is the most overt. She’s a closeted lesbian, and doesn’t want her friends to know, even though two of them already do. It’s an open secret between them, but the decision to not address it lets them get on with their day to day lives. To bring the issue to the surface would complicate the friendship in a way that they’re not really ready for.

Interestingly, we never actually see the four girls together. We get to know them by what’s in their heads, and can piece together the dynamics of their interaction through that. We start with Toshi, who’s the most ‘normal’ of the characters. She doesn’t really have a secret life, she doesn’t have any of the traumas that the other characters suffer through, she’s dealing with getting into college and feels jealous when two of her friends hang out without her. Her secret life is the most mundane, a false name, Ninna Hori, that she puts on when she wants to remain anonymous. Her perspective opens and closes the book, a bookend of normalcy around the crazier events within. Her small transgression, not telling the police that she saw Worm on the day his mother was murdered, is what leads to the traumatic events to come.

For all of them, Worm becomes a way of flirting with something out of the ordinary, a respite from the pressures of everyday life. For Toshi, lying to the police is enough of a thrill. For Yuzan, it’s giving him a bike and a cellphone, helping him escape the law. But, Kirarin fancies herself the most mature of the group, and the chance to get to know a murderer proves irresistible for her. Kirarin feels very real, a girl who likes the power that she has over men, and wants to exercise that power, even as she maintains the image of the cute, popular girl at school. She reminds me a bit of Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me, living a double life of normalcy and sophistication, all the while drawn to danger.

She makes a huge deal of being the only one of her friends to have a gay friend, and she also thinks she’s the only one of her friends with another alternate circle of friends, in this case, a group of girls with whom she talks about only shopping and boys. She compartmentalizes her life, talking about relationships with one group of people and other things with her ‘normal’ friends. We see that with a lot of characters in the book, the constant keeping of secrets to protect a social image that their friends have created.

It’s something that rings true to me, in high school, we talked endlessly about things that didn’t matter, and never discussed anything really important. I had close friends, but it wasn’t until the end of high school that we really broke the surface and talked about more important, emotional things. I remember having these ‘discussions,’ as we called them, it was something that would just happen organically, a segue from the surface to deeper emotion, making internal dialogue external. In Waking Life, one of the character says that the sharing of ideas between two people is a religious experience, and I’d agree with that. Some of the most amazing moments of my life have been conversations where everything just clicked and ideas and emotions moved between me and someone else. But, our restrictive images of ourselves make that hard to do. We have to conform to this role that society has put us in, to not do something ‘out of character.’

In Kirarin’s case, she chooses to do something dangerous and ‘out of character’ without consulting her school friends, speaking only to her gay friend, the friend who is a social transgression for her. In her mind, his exoticism is topped only by the exoticism of meeting a murderer. Kirarin is the kind of person who uses others for her own benefit, who loves to control men, as a way of getting back at Wataru, a boy she opened herself up to, who subsequently betrayed her. She fantasizes about using Worm as a way of getting back at Wataru, only to find herself in way over her head as things go too far.

When interacting with Kirarin, Worm alternates between militant dominance and total weakness. Kirarin is such a strong presence, she would normally have total control over a guy like Worm. He is a meek guy who hasn’t had much luck with women, a loner. But, the fact that he’s a murderer gives him an edge, a power that he otherwise lacks. In his changing behavior we see the spectrum of control in relationships between men and women. Weaker men are always controlled by women, they are the ones who go where their women want them to, and do what is asked of them. They’re the guys who can’t just go out and pick somebody up, who on some level feel lucky to be with anyone. They are essentially harmless, and lack the capacity for violence. But, men with the capacity of violence change the power equation. The threat of violence gives powerful men the implicit last word. Women can try to make them do anything, but they don’t have the last word. Here, Worm switches between roles, embracing the persona of a military commander, but slipping out of that back to weakness.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way each character comes fully alive during the chapters they narrate. You feel like this whole thing is about whoever’s speaking, and aren’t sure how things will proceed when they recede from the main stage. Late in the book, we spend time with Terauchi, and get a fully drawn picture of this girl’s life from childhood to high school. A few months ago, I watched Love and Pop, Hideaki Anno’s film about a group of four high school girls who kind of prostitute themselves to make money. It reminds me a lot of this book, and gave me a better understanding of the kind of culture these girls are in. Terauchi talks about being felt up everyday on the train, constantly harassed by older men. This gets her down, it makes everyday a struggle, and that’s why she chooses to kill herself at the end of the book.

It all ends with Toshi, who is still living a pretty normal life at the end of the book. She meets Haru, a girl who used to be a Barbie and has now become a mod, shedding personalities with the seasons. But, Toshi puts on the persona of normality. She says she wears clothes that won’t stand out, and in doing so, she’s making her own kind of fashion statement. She’s implicitly saying I’m nothing special, and maybe living that kind of ‘normal’ life makes her the healthiest one in the book. She isn’t as enraptured with the idea of escape as the others, she can’t quite understand why they do what they do. She’s the closest the book has to an objective point of view. But, immersed in the other characters’ minds, we have a total understanding of why they acted like they did, we know the world they lived in and the struggles they faced.

I though this was a great book, a really striking use of subjectivity to make a story that could have been a simple thriller into an exploration of universal social dynamics, the way that people interact with each other, the way we build up our own public personas, and the secrets we keep from the world.

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