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 another.
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 her.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman