When placed in a foreign culture, the familiar can acquire new power to astound and enthrall. Certain genres of fiction rely heavily on this alienation technique: Science fiction recasts classical conflicts by placing them in space or the future, while mystery novelists have revived their narrow conventions by inventing detectives in ancient Rome or the Arctic. But murder and horror become especially eerie when the story emerges from an unknown tongue and an unfamiliar society. In Natsuo Kirino's Out, a story of mayhem in industrial Tokyo, the strangeness oozes as much from the cadence of the translator's prose as from the gory details of dismemberment and torture.
Set in and around a boxed-lunch factory churning out endless, depressing bento meals bound for convenience stores, Out follows several desperate women who work the night shift together. When Yayoi strangles her abusive husband, who's been chasing a club hostess and losing their savings at a baccarat club, she turns to her comrades for help disposing of the body. Calm, collected Masako takes charge of cutting up the corpse and distributing it to garbage drops around the city, enlisting the help of a responsible shift leader and a deluded social climber living above her means. When the police uncover a few packages, suspicion falls on Satake, the ex-con who owns the baccarat club and pimps the hostess. But the charges don't stick, and in the novel's gruesome denouement, Satake solves the mystery and stalks the women, plotting a revenge that mirrors a horrific sex murder he committed years ago.
Out's setting and characters haunt the edges of the familiar: the assembly-line work, the cookie-cutter apartment complexes, the husbands and families slipping imperceptibly away. But each element comes with a crucial Asian difference. One of the more wearying jobs on the assembly line is shaping the bento meals' machine-dispensed lump of rice. The size of the rooms in Masako's apartment is measured in tatami mats. And as the women cling uneasily to each other, their relationships with their husbands and children seem insubstantial, almost accidental. Stephen Snyder's translation veers between utilitarian prose and funhouse-mirror emotional narrative, all delivered with a slightly distant sadness that gives Out a sense of postmodern remove. This peek into the life of a Japanese housewife is far from melodrama. In the final analysis, the job—and the pay, as dirty as it may be—is what matters. "If you could numb yourself to all the blood and gore," Masako muses while chopping up a cadaver, "there was really very little difference between this job and the one they did at the factory."