Snakes and Earrings

You can tell a lot about a person by the books she reads. Or, I used to think so back in college. The best way to understand anyone in college was to ask them who their favorite authors were. The list was unbearably generic. Sophomore girls were discovering their feminism, and their books invariably included Women Who Run With the Wolves and Wiccan Love Spells. Anyone who was one-tenth Irish ended up pontificating about how he'd retraced Dublin exactly as it was done in Ulysses. Ditto for anyone one-tenth Native American. Even if they were as white and preppie as the Ivy League snow, they'd corner you at some party and start raving the Oppression of Their People and how Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony was suppressed by white American literary hegemony. Indians--well, there weren't many Indian-Americans at Claremont McKenna College. And Bollywood wasn't hip then. So we continued to plaster our walls with Monet prints (I personally preferred Maxfield Parrish) and stuck to the old British canon: Donne, Tennyson, a little Eliot for flavor.

But post-college, it's different. You can never predict anyone. You don't even know if your friends read anything beyond the New York Post sports page. And when they tell you what they're reading, it can surprise you. Witness, for example, my friend Julie. She is a Southern belle, minus the accent (though she can go Scarlett O'Hara at moment's notice). She likes opera and works as an editor for Dutton. She secretly reads romances--the period piece ones with pirates and breast-heaving women--under the covers. I've known her for a while now, so when she told me she'd purchased an erotic Japanese novel, I pictured something kind of Madame Butterfly-ish. Memoirs of a Geisha with the dirty parts written up more.

What she sent me was Snakes and Earrings. Written by the obscenely accomplished Hitomi Kanehara (he was 20 when he got Japan's most prestigious literary award), it is erotic, but not in the way you think. The story centers around Lui, a vaguely nomadic Japanese girl who's part of the disillusioned punk subculture in Japan. When her lover Ama--who, thanks to the miracle of piercing, is literally fork-tongued--goes missing, she realizes that she knows little about identity, let alone sex or love. The novel is filled with filmable visuals--Barbie Girls in camisoles and blond wigs, dragon tattoos that remain eyeless so they don't come to life, punk girls working as psuedo-geishas for drink money (the only use they seem to have for traditional Japanese culture). The common thread through all this is the complicated relationship that Lui has to pleasure and pain--not just in her S&M sexual activities, but in her obsession with body modification, in tattoos and piercing. Each moment of artistry results in bodily pain, and it's hard to guess what Lui enjoys more. It's a dark, terse, unrelenting little book, and, to put it mildly, not what I expected from Miss Julie at all. But then again, this book was a smart business decision. Is it really what she reads under the covers, along with her Harlequin romances? What kind of girl is she? Then again, what kind of girl am I to recommend the book? But I do. It pushes against your boundaries, and you should always push as hard as you can on those.

So people surprise you. And this book surprised me. It's been so long that a book has managed to be both genuinely engrossing and turn my stomach at the same time. You'll read it in one sitting and feel dirty.

Just light a cigarette and enjoy it.