Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Alfred A. Knopf: 214 pp., $23.95
A teenageR murders his mother and cannot articulate why. A young lesbian frequents a gay bar, is beaten by a transvestite, but won't come out to her friends. A popular girl feels betrayed by her mother's affair. Another feels worthless after a boyfriend's rejection. And one girl assumes a new name, hoping a new identity comes with it. "Real World," the 16th novel by award-winning Japanese author Natsuo Kirino, takes us deep inside the heads of these kids. Jealousy, solipsism, fear, arrogance -- the mind of an adolescent can be a frustrating and scary place.
In an earlier novel, "Out," the first of Kirino's books to be published in English, four unusual characters tell versions of the same gruesome event. Each is unique in voice and point of view; open the novel anywhere and it's obvious who is speaking. The voices in "Real World" are not as distinct. The girls are surprisingly introspective and cognizant of their own personalities and foibles. They have different lives and interests, but their voices are too similar. Only Worm, the boy who murdered his mother with a baseball bat, is different, but we get too little time with him. He is scared and unhappy in that silent, belligerent way particular to teenage boys. He identifies with a severely tortured Japanese soldier from a film, thinking that, just like the soldier, the world is against him, the enemy is everywhere, no one understands. The girls get involved in Worm's crime and his flight from the police. He is a hero to them as well as a fascination, like a disgusting vivisection in a science class. Their connection with him barrels forward in the best noir tradition, events rolling out of control, one bad choice after another.
As compelling as this story is, it is also depressing. These kids are resigned to a life without fulfillment. Although they are still in high school, they already see themselves as failures who will spend the rest of their lives in meaningless careers, married to suitable partners, having the appropriate children. In a story of five American teenagers, at least one would expect to be famous, and surely two or three would feel ripe with the possibilities before them; bad grades, rejections by universities and lovers would be minor blips on their road to success. Kirino's teenagers are analytical, pragmatic, meek and accepting in a way definitely foreign to U.S. adolescents with their self-important histrionics. And yet her characters -- like teenagers everywhere -- have no grasp of reality. Not one of them even knows what the real world is. Only one girl, before a surprising turn in her life, comes to understand: "There really are things that are irreparable."