Snakes and Earrings

A sad, powerful diagnosis of empty urban living and youthful consumerism

By Hitomi Kanehara

Penguin/Plume (May), $10

In the nighttime Tokyo underworld of Snakes and Earrings, fashion is both arbitrary and deadly. The narrator, Lui, a lazy, nihilistic 19-year-old girl, is repeatedly accused of being a "Barbie-girl," though her perky, bottle-blond exterior hides the soul of a selfish, opportunistic masochist. Her sweet, doomed boyfriend, Ama, is a punk who gets into a deadly altercation with some frat boys over his sartorial choice one night, and his sudden, careless brutality in the fight both repels and titillates Lui (who keeps insisting that her name is short for "Louis Vuitton"). Having already stretched her earlobes like a tribal African, Lui is fascinated with Ama's forked tongue (the product of body modification), and decides to bisect her own. She gets involved with Shiba, the couple's sadistic mutual friend and piercer/tattooist, and — this being a tale of the underworld — their relationship devolves into murder, brutal sex, rampant drinking, and a giant dragon tattoo. This brief, cruel little book and its portrayal of Japan's social upheaval earned the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, making a literary celebrity out of its 20-year-old author, a former runaway and one-time San Franciscan. Even with all its sex, violence, and social significance, Snakes reads like a Barbie-girl's Camus: The writing is as listless and casual as the characters' lives, and on these shores teenage malaise and body modification have long since lost the capacity to shock. Still, Kanehara's shallow characters are engaging in spite of themselves, and her sad diagnosis of empty urban living and youthful consumerism is understated and powerful.

 
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