Published in 2003, when Hitomi Kanehara was 20, Snakes And Earrings went on to win the Akutagawa Prize for literature, Japan’s “foremost award” for new fiction writers. A high school dropout at the age of fifteen, Kanehara pursued writing with the support of her father, a literary professor and translator. Ryu Murakami, himself an Akutagawa recipient for his novel Almost Transparent Blue, described Snakes And Earrings as, “A picture of an eccentric world that clearly passes on what goes on in the minds of young women today.”
Snakes And Earrings is a short novel about body modification, sex, alienation and alcohol abuse. The main protagonist is Lui, a nineteen-year-old woman who claims to have been named after Louis Vuitton. Other characters include Ama, her boyfriend, who sports piercings, tattoos, a forked tongue and red hair, Shiba, a tattoo artist and bisexual sadist, and Maki, Lui’s best friend as well as a “Barbie-girl.”
Though Ama, Lui’s boyfriend, is often described as “scary-looking” and is revealed to have a violent side, generally triggered by other men harassing his girlfriend, he seems to strive, in his relationship with Lui, for “normalcy.” He goes to work every day, genuinely cares for her, calls her when he’s late coming back home, buys her dinner, makes love to her in a non-adventurous heterosexual manner. Though Ama repeatedly tells Lui that he loves her, the couple fails completely at synchronizing their intentions and living together openly and honestly. Lui seems overwhelmed with managing herself, and as a result never learns basic facts about Ama, such as where he works or even what is full name is. As a couple, they function as more or less intimate strangers.
For most of the novel, Lui floats around and lacks purpose. She occasionally works as a “companion” for an agency, which mostly involves pouring drinks and looking attractive for lonely businessmen. Though she gets in trouble for some of the additions she makes to her body, she seems unbothered by her employer’s concerns, and instead views body modifications as the ideal solution to escape this line of work, and not have to put up with it anymore.
Through Ama, Lui meets Shiba, a bisexual tattoo artist who implants, at her request, a stud in her tongue, so that she, too, like Ama, can have a forked tongue. Later, she asks him to tattoo her back, which he agrees to do in exchange for “one fuck.” Sex with Shiba is rougher than with Ama, though not unpleasurable. She continues to sleep with Shiba behind Ama’s back, and a weird subplot develops in which Lui wonders which one of them, Shiba or Ama, will kill her first.
Lui feels removed from society and seems unable to withstand even a simple encounter with a child. Pain, which she gets from the stud in her tongue or sex with Shiba, seems to both call her back to reality and distance her from it even further. What motivates her self-destructive behavior becomes increasingly unclear, even to herself. As the novel goes on, she drinks more and more, loses all appetite, which triggers weight loss and other issues.
Though I found this book to be probably a little too short, I really liked its themes of counter-culture, romantic nihilism and sadism mixed with the search for self. It seemed, to me, deeply connected to other Japanese novels I’ve read this year, including No Longer Human and Almost Transparent Blue. A few quotes at random:
“I collapsed on to the ground and broke down in tears. Screw you. Go to hell, you fuckers. I wish I had a greater vocabulary to fully express the extent of my pain and hatred. But I don’t. I’m just pathetic. That’s all I am.”
“I often like to think that if sunlight reached into everywhere on the entire planet, I’d find a way to turn myself into a shadow.”
“Think about it. God has to be a sadist to give people life.”
“So I guess you’re saying Mary was a masochist?”
“Yeah. Guess so.”
"I didn’t care if Ama was Amadeus, Shiba-san was a son of God, and I was the only unexceptional one among us. All I wanted was to be part of an underground world where the sun doesn’t shine, there are no serenades, and the sound of children’s laughter is never, ever heard."
“There’s no point in me waiting for a solution when I don’t even have a problem in the first place. Life just seemed so empty, that’s all.”
“What kind of dream?”
“I used to be good friends with this guy who was into hip-hop and I was supposed to be meeting him, but I was late. Anyway, when I got there, him and his friends were mad at me, and they began rapping their anger. About five or six guys were standing around me, all rapping and singing their anger at me.”
“I wondered which would be better, to work as a prostitute to live, or to die rather than work as one? I’d say the latter answer would be the one chosen by the healthy mind, but then again, there’s not really anything healthy about being dead.”