Autofiction, By Hitomi Kanehara, trans David James Karashima

Reviewed,Matt Thorne
Friday 29 February 2008 01:00

Hitomi Kanehara is one of international fiction's most startling new voices. Her first novel, Snakes and Earrings, written when she was 21, won the top Japanese award, the Akutagawa Prize, and has since gone on to sell a million copies in Japan. Her success was no doubt helped by the fact that one of the judges was Ryu Murakami, whose own work had a similarly hard-boiled and slightly psychotic tone, but she still provides a take on teenage and early twentysomething life with no British or US equivalent.

Snakes and Earrings was a disturbing account of a teenage girl whose principal interests were tattoos, piercings and violent sex. Murakami praised the novel as an accurate depiction of a new generation, but equally as important as her understanding of teenage mores was the violence she was committing towards the novel form, twisting the genre with a confidence few contemporaries could rival.

Her second novel, Autofiction, is equally experimental. It's not unusual to find stories told backwards (this one follows the narrator Rin from her 22nd year back to her 15th), or books that feature authors as characters. And the blurring of genres (the book appears to be an exercise in autobiography-as-fiction) is hardly new. What makes it so interesting is the way her anatomisation of a disturbed mind renders every description unique. It is less about the impact of the past upon the present than how destructive mental processes can lead a person into dangerous situations.

Although the novel concludes with an abortion, Kanehara resists the implication that this has led to her protagonist's nihilism. Instead, she shows how Rin continues to risk alienating the people who might offer her stability. One of the focal points for her anxiety is sex. Rin is a jealous, angry woman who imagines her husband would cheat on her with a stewardess on their way back from honeymoon.

This seems absurd, until Kanehara reveals the context of Rin's past sexual experiences. She depicts her attending a sex party, aged 18, where even her sympathetically-presented boyfriend seems unconcerned about whether the women there consent to sex or not. Her mindset is also shaped by her female friends, including a woman who has sex with the truck driver who rescues her from a sexual assault in the woods.

Rin may have a fragile mind, but this is not helped by the manipulations of the men who surround her. Her husband is a literary editor, and her own editor, Shinagawa, forces her to turn her life into fiction. His lack of interest in her stability and desire to force her into becoming a role model allows Kanehara to explore the exploitative nature of confessional memoirs. Shinagawa doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between autobiography and fiction; all that matters is that Rin can be defined by the novel.

Rin agrees to this, but Kanehara's novel avoids this prison, allowing as it does for so many different levels of interpretation that this autofiction is the most elegant postmodern escape act by a contemporary novelist yet.

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