Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque has a cool enough dust jacket that people frequently stopped me to ask how the book was. "I'm not sure yet," I'd say. "I'm only on page 85." Later I'd tell a coworker, "I can't really tell if I like it or not." I was over 250 pages in at this point. Usually by the time I've read several hundred pages of a novel, I have an idea how I feel about it, but not so with Grotesque. When it worked, it worked, and when it didn't, it dragged on like a mule cart with missing wheels.
Set in present-day Japan, Grotesque is narrated by a nameless woman whose sister Yuriko is "diabolically beautiful." Our narrator, a plain, forgettable woman whose only talent "was the uncompromising ability to feel spite," tells the story of Yuriko, who began prostituting as a teen, and who, along with another streetwalking classmate, was murdered before the book begins. The narrator, whose face "gushes maliciousness," relishes her beautiful sister's death, and as she tells Yuriko's story, we realize that we have what my English teacher liked to call an "unreliable narrator" on our hands.
Here, Kirino whips out some sweet literary tricks. As we grow to mistrust our narrator's version of things, Kirino slyly introduces other vantage points by way of court testimony, recovered diaries, and intercepted correspondences. The trick in doing this is to not make it feel like a trick at all, which Kirino does wonderfully—her process of layering information adds depth and intrigue to the novel.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of "steak" here (467 pages of it), and not a lot of "sizzle." This is one of the most egregious recent examples of a book being too long for its own good, with overly long descriptions of every social situation the characters encounter. Worse—and I tend to blame the translator here—the prose lies flat and limp on the page, which is no good when you're writing about fermented hatred and the biological decay of nymphomaniacs.
But every time I'd get fed up with chapter-long analyses of the social hierarchy in Japanese boarding schools, Kirino would introduce a dead character's diary, and the entire plot would spin on itself. I find myself deeply wanting to like Grotesque—it has a lot going for it. But this book needs some tough love, namely a new editor and a new translator who can bring Kirino's text to life.