“Pain, without love/ Pain, I can’t get enough pain/ I like it rough ‘Cause I’d rather feel pain than nothing, nothing at all” – Three Days Grace, “Pain”

(This review will not be spoiler free. This review also may be triggering for discussions of rape and violence.)

Hitomi Kanehara was a high school dropout and wrote her debut, “Snakes and Earrings”, when she was nineteen years old. It won the “Akutagawa Prize” (one of the most valued literary prizes in Japan) in 2003. One of the judges was the well-respected bestselling novelist Ryū Murakami. In a foreword he wrote for “Snakes and Earrings”, Mr. Murakami praised the novel for its perfect depiction of the angst and existential troubles one can suffer while being (as well as due to existing as one) a teenager. He speculated that one of the reasons why Ms. Kanehara succeeds in this so well would be because she wrote the novel when still a teenager herself.

Ms. Hitomi Kanehara

“Snakes and Earrings” starts with the nineteen-year old Lui meeting the punk-styled Ama and his split-tongue. Lui becomes immediately and extremely eager to get her tongue pierced, the first step in getting it split. She suddenly wishes to cover herself in tattoos and piercings, much to Ama’s surprise, since she’s a so-called “Barbiegirl”. When the two become a couple it turns out that Ama is a very sweet-natured and cuddly lover despite his “scary” looks. However he is violently overly protective of Lui and therefore beats a man to possible death after the man harassed Lui. Lui fiercely claims that she does not care much about Ama. She then tries her best to make sure Ama doesn’t get caught by the police, contradicting her many statements.

Ama and Lui, from the cinematic adaption of “Snakes And Earrings”

However, despite Ama having a clear dark side, Lui is frustrated by his mild and loving care of her. Her longing for roughness and self-destruction are found in the sadistic tattoo artist Shida, who she starts an affair with. Shida constantly threatens Lui that he may end up killing her eventually. Shida makes it clear that he also would enjoy such an act very much. He’s also extremely violent towards Lui during sex. Kanehara uses those narrative sequences to describe Lui’s relationship to herself, her body and sexuality: exploring the thoughts which Lui has regarding what Shida will do to her, and playing these against musings about what other men have done to her during sex, some of which she strongly disliked. However it seems Lui wasn’t able to protest against these events. An eerie feeling is created that suggests Lui doesn’t ever get a say or control of the situation when having sex – in a way she’s always literally at the mercy of the men. But when with Shida, Lui becomes intoxicated with the possibility of her own annihilation.

This theme is continued in a scene where, while eating dinner with Ama and Shida at a restaurant, Lui wonders whether it will be Ama who will kill her (due to him finding out about her unfaithfulness) or Shida (who even at the restaurant whispers to her how much he longs to kill her). Lui states this as a matter of fact and as a curiously indifferent quiz question. Lui bathes herself in destruction and the threat of death is all a part of the new life of suffering.

Kanehara cleverly describes how Lui feels such disconnection from the society and life that she can`t care about herself nor keep herself safe in the midst of the acts of her own living . She longs for pain, since as she frankly states: “I need it to feel anything”. Lui isn’t close to her family and doesn’t seem to have any close friends (only one appears briefly in the novel and Lui doesn’t seem that close to her) and hates the only job she’s ever had. The job in question being to serve and host rich men who have “important business” meetings at the bar where she’s employed. The job is illustrated as a work place where young girls giggle and smile and act as cute as possible to please men, i.e. acting out a role usually expected from women in patriarchic societies. Lui states she is very good at this job. So good in fact that many men leave her their phone numbers. Lui then adds: “But it’s not me their interested in, it’s the role I play that their interested in”. In a following inner thought Lui comments on how most people mistake her for an orphan. This is a subtle hint that Lui as a person comes off as quit alone and separated from all in the world.

Lui, being unable to make meaningful connections and being forced to act cute by society, rebels destructively by just adapting another submissive and self-annihilating role. Society, being both empty and colorful, has driven Lui to seek the exact opposite. Yet due to the operations of the patriarchic world, even her rebellion can only lead to her being exploited.

Lui is not only self-destructive by staying in relationships where she may end up dying, but she’s also an alcoholic. Ama points out how Lui is basically dependent of alcohol, which she disregards with anger. Kanehara uses the addiction to drink, and the deadly spiral it creates, to depict Lui as a person consumed by nihilism. But this nihilism is founded on the deadly, but logical, reaction to society which gives her no choices or possibilities of action. Lui’s decisions are clearly not healthy. While her nihilism stops her from making better decisions in life, what alternative is possible in a life stripped of possibility?

Cover of the Finnish translation of “Snakes and Earrings”

“Snakes and Earrings” is a great portrayal of harsh numbness. However, in the novel, the presentation of bisexual men is more than a little troublesome. Shida, the sadistic tattoo artist, mentions early to Lui that he enjoys sleeping with men (when he’s about to sleep with Lui). That Shida is sexually disturbed is hinted at from his very first interaction with Lui when he states in a serious tone to her, during their first encounter, that he would like to stab Lui in the neck. His most disturbing traits are continually displayed in the novels narrative through the token of his bisexuality. Along with this troubling thread in the tale we find throughout the novel Kanehara has her characters, consistently position the act of the bisexual as peculiar, and moving, always, on the fringe of meaningless destruction. To explain furthermore, I’ll have to explain the turning point of the novel.

Cover of Swedish translation of “Snakes and Earrings”

Near the novels end, Ama goes missing. He is later found dead with clear signs of being brutally tortured before being killed. Lui’s reaction to this news is surprisingly emotional. She suffers depression and feels guilty over not getting to know Ama more (she worries that their last exchange of dialogue was so nonchalant). She stops eating entirely and only drinks. Lui, for a mere moment in the text, starts to care for something and engage with relations. However, she is quickly called in by the police who have discovered that Ama was raped before being killed. The Policemen start off asking Lui, before telling about their recent discovery, if Ama had any “bisexual tendencies”. Lui says she doubts it and that she is certain that Ama was completely heterosexual. A conclusion she makes since as she says: “his way of having sex was so normal that I was sometimes fairly bored”. A policeman then explains that they discovered that Ama was also raped before being murdered. This whole sequence boggles the mind on so many levels. Why did the policemen assume Ama was bisexual? They state that he was raped by another man, not having consensual sex with one. It is highly problematic that the policeman makes assumptions of a victim’s sexuality due to the crime committed towards them. A crime such as rape should never be seen as a reveal of sorts on the victim’s personality, besides that they have experienced something horrid. The way the policemen put it makes it sounds as if they would be trying to find out if Ama was somehow “asking for it” or somewhat responsible for getting raped (i.e. Victim Blaming). Portraying a situation like this wouldn’t be problematic if the author included a critical tone to the prose or had her protagonist question such mentality, but such protests, or even hints of disquiet about the direction of the conversation, are completely lacking in this scene. Also, by having the novel’s protagonist decide that Ama couldn’t possibly be bisexual since he’s way of having sex was too “normal”, Kanehara makes the implication that bisexuality is similar to having an appetite for “unusual” sex. Such viewpoints boggle the mind and we hope, and not find within the narrative, any alarm with this train of thought.

Lui then figures out that Shida was the one who raped, tortured and killed Ama. Lui however still decides to stay with Shida, this decision being her final act of nihilism. This is a great ending since it does demonstrate Lui’s complete lack of caring, feeling or belief for anything. However by making Shida, the most disturb person in the novel, into a complete monster and also the only non-heterosexual character in the novel, this twist ends up also sending the message that bisexual men, just by nature of being bisexual, are dangerous and predatory. This is a stereotype that has been detailed many times in fiction regarding the bisexual man, and one which also rears its ugly head regarding gay men as well. “Snakes and Earrings” therefore just repeats an old nasty caricature of the non-heterosexual men, and takes what should be a great and forceful ending and undermines it (not to mention makes this strong story have the taste of extremely non-progressive morality tale).

“Snakes and Earrings” is a very short, but disturbing and intense read. Despite its huge flaws, “Snakes and Earrings” is well worth checking out.