Book Club Questions: Out by Natsuo Kirino (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.

The ringleader of this cover-up, Masako Katori, emerges as the emotional heart of Out and as one of the shrewdest, most clear-eyed creations in recent fiction. Masako’s own search for a way out of the straitjacket of a dead-end life leads her, too, to take drastic action.

The complex yet riveting narrative seamlessly combines a convincing glimpse into the grimy world of Japan’s yakuza with a brilliant portrayal of the psychology of a violent crime and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between seasoned detectives and a group of determined but inexperienced criminals. Kirino has mastered a Thelma and Louise kind of graveyard humor that illuminates her stunning evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds and the friendship that bolsters them in the aftermath.

My friend and I definitely found this book an interesting read; its subject matter is grim and brutal, held together by the attention-grabbing puzzle that is Masako Katori. Masako’s rise from the cocoon of her dead-end middle-aged existence while she takes control following her coworker’s spousal murder is a journey laced with fascination and dread for the reader. It’s a dark read, and not for everyone – but if detailed descriptions of dismemberment or cat-and-mouse games with vicious killers don’t faze you, then this might be the book you’ve been looking for. I must warn that the ending perplexed my friend and I in its sudden departure from the narrative trajectory of the rest of the story – but aside from that, we enjoyed this book a great deal.

Discussion questions below the cut!

Consider the title of this novel. The original title in Japanese is the same, but it’s written in katakana, since it is a borrowed word from English. The closest “original” Japanese noun would be 出口 (deguchi), which means “exit” or “way out” (as well as various other things). In contrast, アウト (auto) means out of bounds (in sports), outer/external/outside, and no good/out of line/unacceptable/failure. Why do you think Natsuo Kirino chose auto instead of deguchi for her original title? Do you think the meaning of the title is altered by its translation into English? How did the title shape your expectations for the novel, if at all?

Translating a text is always difficult, but especially so when the two languages are completely different structurally. In translation, there’s always a balance between conveying what is actually said versus what is actually meant, with the added difficulty of keeping the text sounding natural. Without being able to do a line-by-line comparison, what did you think of Stephen Snyder’s translation? (If you’re stumped, try comparing it to other translated novels you have read.)

The novel is specifically set in the urban sprawl of Tokyo. Why do you think Natsuo Kirino chose this for her setting, rather than the countryside or a less massive city? What does the setting contribute to the story she is trying to tell?

Oftentimes the narration in this novel can feel like third-person limited, aside from occasional moments of third-person omniscient; for instance, when Yayoi meets with the detectives and lets slip a mention of Kenji’s habit of playing baccarat, the narration adds, “Although she didn’t know it yet, this one word would prove to be her salvation” (168). Do you believe this style of narration was effective for the story Kirino was trying to tell? Why or why not?

Aside from the four main women and Satake, there are only two other major characters in the novel: Anna and Kazuo, both of whom are immigrants. Why do you think Kirino made these characters immigrants, rather than characters raised in Japanese society? How does an outsider status shape the way Anna views Satake or Kazuo views Masako, in comparison to how those characters are viewed by Japanese natives?

Satake commits a crime so gruesome in his youth that it draws a line between him and everyone else around him, even in the opinion of yakuza members. What was your emotional response to Satake at the start of the novel? How about after he was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit? How about at the end of the novel? What prompted your reactions to Satake throughout the novel, and do you agree with the way Kirino chose to portray him?

When one of the employees from Mika is discussing Satake’s secretiveness with Anna, he says, “But how can you live if you don’t trust anyone? Maybe it means that you really don’t trust yourself?” (194). Masako often is unwilling to trust those around her in this novel, even the people on whom she must rely the most. Where do you think this lack of trust comes from? Who are the people that she does trust, if any? If she does trust anyone, why do you think that person has won her trust? Do you believe Masako trusts herself? Why or why not?

In an interview, Natsuo Kirino said:

I don’t think I exclusively tell stories of women criminals. However, being a woman in this society is mainly an anonymous existence. I don’t think the fact that the environment is such that women are nameless and overlooked is a good thing. For example, a young man once told me that until he read Out, he ‘never realized that regular middle aged women actually had a life.’ What makes these women special is not that they committed a crime, but the circumstances around these normal women that cornered them into that situation. It’s often merely convenient to depict them as seeking an escape from their life through an act of crime.

Do you feel that this book qualifies as a feminist novel, even in part? Why or why not?

During the long and ongoing process of women’s liberation, there has often been discussion of the patriarchal need for women to exist only as objects that are desired, rather than as subjects who desire. When Satake is considering self-awareness in women, he thinks to himself, “It was a quality that was essential in a woman for a man to fall in love with her; but men who were only interested in buying a woman’s body hated it with a vengeance” (368). Satake’s words suggest that men are only able to truly love a woman if they can see her as a subject with her own desires and internal life. Do you agree or disagree with Satake? By Satake’s definition, do you think Masako is ever truly loved in this novel? How about Yoshie, Yayoi, and Kuniko? When these women fail to be loved, is it due to their lack of self-awareness, or is it due to an unwillingness in those around them to appreciate that self-awareness?

What did you think about the end of the book? How did you feel about it – satisfied, disappointed, surprised, etc.? If you feel positively about the ending, explain why you thought it was an appropriate ending for the novel. If you feel negatively, explain why; what could the author have done instead that would have been more fitting, in your opinion?

Page numbers are from the 2005 edition by Vintage.

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