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The International Writers Magazine
: Review

SNAKES AND EARRINGS by Hitomi Kanehara,
translated from the Japanese by David Karashima,
Dutton, 2005, 122 pp. ISBN: 0-525-94889-9
A Charlie Dickinson review


Japanese Hitomi Kanehara's first novel, the Akutagawa Prize-winning SNAKES AND EARRINGS gives new meaning to "speaking with a forked tongue." Narrator Lui, all of nineteen, is talking with her companion Ama, who asks, "Know what a forked tongue is?" Tempted at the sight of Ama's serpentine tongue--body modification, to be sure, or is this the Garden of Eden?--Lui goes on to respond she would--"by instinct alone"--like to give it a go and have her tongue pierced with a size 14g stud, progressing to larger studs until her tongue is twain.

With this grabber of an opening scene, this reviewer felt transported back to Wakayama, Japan, several years ago, taking in the sight of Japanese youths walking about in the night and one young man, in particular, who memorably showed off a six-inch safety pin through his eyebrow.

The third character in this compactly written morality tale is Shiba-san, who is the fellow who will pierce Lui's tongue. Shiba-san works in Desire, a store brimming with sex toys (tattooing and piercing services available), or as Lui says, "it was a store for perverts." In one of the novel's more ironic assertions, Shiba-san willing pierces Lui's tongue--to ease her past her supposed Barbie-girl looks--but personally doesn't approve of tongue splitting. "I wouldn't do that myself. I think only God has the right to do that."

Novelist Kanehara knows well a fine line separates tattoos, piercings, and the like as artistic self-expression and, more darkly, self-mutilation and pain. The pathos of those who can't feel anything, who seek out pain to feel again is not lost on Lui. Before having an affair with Shiba-san, she taunts him, saying his preference for S-M is because he can't feel anything in a "regular way." The story question of SNAKES AND EARRINGS is not whether Lui gets her forked tongue, but where the cul-de-sacs of her un-Barbie Doll lifestyle choices take her.

Infrequently, Lui earns money--when she is not sponging off Ama--by having compensated dates with executive types. Then Ama is killed mysteriously. A story logic has Lui move in with Shiba-san, but then maybe not for long. Not to give away the ending, but Lui reconsiders the forked tongue and realizes there is more to do with her life.

With SNAKES AND EARRINGS, Kanehara gives a convincing portrayal of the angst of modern Japanese youth. It's noteworthy for a examination of choices made, without the distracting issue of excess drug and alcohol consumption, which clouds or excuses choice in some other coming-of-age novels. Always edgy, at times psychologically brutal, SNAKES AND EARRINGS is no surfacy Douglas Coupland concoction, and takes the reader elsewhere. Some place closer to the psychological force field of, say, that great Japanese master, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. This is one impressive debut.
© Charlie Dickinson June 16 2005
email: snakes.5.charlied@spamgourmet.com
website: http://charlied.freeshell.org

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