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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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05/31/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: Snakes and Earrings"

Snakes and Earrings
by Hitomi Kanehara
translated by David Karashima
Published by Dutton (Penguin Group USA)

Review by Tom Good

When 19-year-old Lui meets a man whose modified tongue is forked like a snake's, she becomes fascinated with the idea of having a tongue like his. She starts with a more conventional tongue piercing, and before long she has fallen into a Tokyo subculture of body modification, tattooing, drinking, sex, and violent crime. Lui narrates her journey in a bored, matter-of-fact manner that reflects her inner emptiness, as in this excerpt:

"I wondered which would be better -- to work as a prostitute to live, or to die rather than work as one? I'd say that latter answer would be the one chosen by the healthy mind, but then again, there's not really anything healthy about being dead. Anyway, they do say that women who are sexually active tend to have a better complexion. Not that I cared if I was healthy or not."

Numbed by the lack of meaning in her life, Lui poses as a helpless bystander to her own choices. The characters never have good reasons for their actions, and so sex, tattoos, and even murder occur without purpose, like the weather. This book attempts to shock the reader with sex and violence, but in a time of Howard Stern, HBO, and tell-all blogs, the idea of a truly shocking novel seems almost quaint. Still, the graphic nature of this book guarantees that it is not for everyone.

At the age of 20, author Hitomi Kanehara won Japan's Akutagawa Prize, which is given to new or rising authors, for this novel. The prize committee must like this type of story, because Snakes and Earrings has an unmistakable similarity to Ryu Murakami's novel Almost Transparent Blue, which won the same prize in 1976. Both are tales of alienated youth who descend into shocking decadence, though Murakami's story emphasized drugs rather than body-piercing. Though they differ a little in plot, in spirit they feel like two versions of the same story.

Murakami got there first and had a better turn of phrase, but Kanehara distinguishes her version with a female perspective and a crisp, condensed style. At 120 pages this is a quick read, and could make for good summer beach reading in the "I Was A Teenage Deviant" category.

Other Links: Interview with translator David Karashima

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