Many of us were taught in English class that the theme of most
novels can be understood as either "man against man," "man against
nature" or "man against himself." And we are told that by the end
of the novel, the main character should experience growth as a
result of one of the above struggles. But post-modern realism does
not concern itself with the convention of protagonist growth. A
good example of such a novel is SNAKES AND EARRINGS, the
award-winning first novel by Japanese author Hitomi Kanehara.
People always think that nineteen-year-old Lui Nakazawa, the
narrator of SNAKES AND EARRINGS, is an orphan, but her parents are
alive and well. There is "no trouble" in her family, she says, but
her own destructive actions prove otherwise.
"Barbie-girl" Lui meets the tough-looking Ama in a Tokyo club and
is drawn to his forked tongue. He explains the painful and bloody
process to her, and she decides she too wants a forked tongue.
Soon, Lui and Ama are an item, and she moves in with him. Before
long she is also involved with the sadistic tattoo artist Shiba and
then witnesses Ama beat a man to death (giving her the man's teeth
as a token of his love for her). Lui seems ambivalent toward both
Ama and Shiba and ponders such sad thoughts as who she would let
kill her if she decided she wanted to die.
However, it is Ama who dies, the victim of horrific torture and
rape, and finally Lui shows the emotion that surely has been just
under the surface for a long time. But is she mourning for Ama
himself or the loss of the idea of him? And if she really loved
him, why does she choose to build a relationship with the man who
surely killed him?
Kanehara's novel is short, 120 pages in a small hardback format,
but it packs a powerful punch. Lui's story is one of disturbing
alienation both from herself and those around her. No wonder
everyone assumes she is an orphan; she seems rootless and needy.
Lui's search for emotional feeling and connection is painful to
read about because the closest she is able to come is with physical
pain and practically anonymous interactions with people. After Ama
goes missing she realizes that she didn't know anything about this
man she was living with: she didn't know his real name, where he
worked, if he had a family --- she only knew about his body and
that he seemed to care for her.
Still, the point may be that Lui has not given up looking for
emotional depth in the face of the emptiness she feels and
experiences. That is, she is not quite yet a lost cause. But the
reader senses that she is close to giving up on herself and the
world. Lui does not grow or change over the course of the novel;
she merely experiences as she moves from one tragic situation to
Kanehara's literary voice is raw and honest. SNAKES AND EARRINGS is
a tale full of murder, sadism and body modification. It is a
graphic, disturbing and scathing commentary on Japanese youth
culture. Yet it is, in its way, enthralling and definitely
powerful. It is not a novel for everyone in that it is
unconventional and may even seem lurid to some readers. But for
adventure readers, it is recommendable, especially as it is the
first work from Kanehara, who has a promising career ahead of
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011
Snakes and Earrings