Saturday, October 22, 2011

Patron Review: Cubism and Rashomon

warning: contains spoilers and some slightly salty language

Real World by Natsuo Kirino
"Deregulation of the Japanese capital asset markets set off what was, and would remain until the NASDAQ, the largest speculative bubble in human history, combining speculation in stocks and speculation in real estate to an astonishing degree. Valuations in both became wholly unhinged."

"MacKaye's lyrical approach had changed dramatically in the two years since Minor Threat. He wasn't railing against teenage hypocrites, bullies, and poseurs anymore - the subject of his songs was often himself."

"As the postmodernists would remind us, we have stuff, we have signs for stuff, and we have symbols of signs."

"With no armor, and no shielding of any kind, we were totally exposed. Our vehicle was like an elephant wandering past the lions' den, holding the tail of the Bradley in front of it. An IED would kill us all."

"Having reached this conclusion, the limbic system sends an all-clear signal to the reptilian brain, and you find yourself walking toward the intruder with open arms."

What do all of these quotes have in common? Together they make an intriguing aleatory cut-up abstraction of the PBR Book Club's October pick? No, it's that they are all NONFICTION. Then along came a lady in a banana suit and forced some fiction my way for a change. I must have needed it because I tentatively began piecemeal reading it and suddenly I'm at the end. While she isn't quite a Picasso or a Kurosawa by any means, the more I read Natsuo Kirino's "Real World" the more I felt like I was wandering through a Cubist painting with "Rashomon" playing on a black and white TV in the cultural background.

At the center are four teenage friends. Surrounding them are their families, their prehistories, an outsider, a few peripheral connections, and an abrupt circumstance. What begins as a relatively straight-forward narrative with flashbacks to the past casually slips into n-dimensional space when the first persona shift sneaks up pleasantly from behind.

I got into an argument with a friend at Mirth Cafe recently in which I claimed that every human being was capable of great evil and great good but that most of us spent most of our time in the comfortable middle of the bell curve (the opposing viewpoint was that some people just don't "have it in them" to commit murder, for example). This novel examines those places and times where people find themselves suddenly and gradually near the extremes of that distribution. Or rather, it uses those situations as a seer would a crystal ball to glimpse how our minds and relationships work out at the edges of everyday experience.

At the root of this Cubism - this differential in perspective that emerges from a flatter tapestry of assumptions about other people's views and motives when viewed from the differing viewpoints of the various persona - is a pervasive space. I didn't actually interpret this space as emotional distance but rather as indicative of the personal space that so epitomizes the Japanese cultural answer to high population density across a small territory - when there is no physical space, people and ultimately society create a mental and behavioral space to compensate.

One of my favorite interludes (other than Worm's salt suit phase - I totally dig the salt suit!) is Terauchi's telling of her entire childhood seemingly spent commuting long distances on a busy metro and suffering all kinds of injustices with no support or guidance other than to just deal with it. The cultural difference here is hammered home, at least to my mid-western sensibilities, even allowing for the large urban aspect of her commuting experience.

In a train where many of the same people are packed in every day, in our culture I have to believe that if a grade school girl were by herself every day, getting shoved off balance and cutting open her cheek, puking up her breakfast on a bad morning, or later as a teenager getting sexually abused by office workers and students there would generally be a different response from some of the "regulars" than just looking the other way or verbally criticizing the young woman and deriding her. Let's just say some pervert ass would be getting kicked vigilante style.

In addition to this pervasive sense of cultural or social space overlaid on the close confines of their physical existence, the sibling element that made this experience engaging for me and evoked the sense of Cubism is the mismatching and misreading of each of the characters by the others as a result of this insidious space and the more general human tendency to make false assumptions about what's going on in even close friends' or loved ones' heads and then proceed as if the assumptions were real. Occasionally they guessed right (Terauchi about Yuzan's sexuality for example), but most of the tension in the story line and in the reader coming to understand the inner workings of the characters is derived from this fascinating menagerie of failed mind-reading.

I suppose the fact they each thought they were individually to blame for the tragedies involved is not only the aggregation and culmination of all the interpersonal perceptual slippage but is also representative of the unavoidably self-focused universe that is a teenager's mindset at that phase of life; it certainly brings the morass of missed cues and intentions over a lifetime into sharp relief.

Kirino does a great job at painting these mental landscapes for us without an excess of detail. Worm's evolution from wanting to steal the neighbor lady's panties to obsessing on Toshi to the dazed and sleepy running phase (did I say I love the salt suit!) to the amplification of the old Japanese movie that'd made an impression on him as a child into this all-consuming mental landscape to a final abandonment of these landscapes - each of the characters has these and they're all interesting, but a series of insightful mental portraits alone wouldn't have done the trick - inviting us into the web of mismatches and misreads going back their entire lives is what engages us and provides us a glimpse into the reasons why people commit murder or take their own lives.

I found myself frequently flipping back to prior narratives to see how something said by one character from a given viewpoint interfaced with the current narrative's timeline and viewpoint through a twisty hallway of offsetting times and places, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle where you can only see part of the puzzle at any given time and the pieces look different when viewed from different sides of the table.

I've seen too many examples of disenfranchised people throwing away opportunities and too much suicide in my life, as I know many people have, and perhaps my personal history helped these particular stories to resonate more easily with me because of that, but mostly I respect the overall effect of the entire webby ball of it - the juxtaposition of all the out-of-kilter (and occasionally dead-on) interconnections against each other and onto these passionate young minds bludgeoning their way through personal and cultural space and the intense pressures and expectations that seem undiminished by that space.

Stevie D.

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