Nubile Nihilists | Book Review | Chicago Reader

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Nubile Nihilists

Three newly translated books by barely legal authors--one Polish, one Russian, one Japanese--question the point of coming of age at all.



Snow White and Russian Red

Dorota Maslowska, translated by Benjamin Paloff

(Grove/Atlantic/Black Cat)

Give Me (Songs for Lovers)

Irinia Denezhkina, translated by Andrew Bromfield

(Simon & Schuster)

Snakes and Earrings

Hitomi Kanehara, translated by Davis Karashima


The decline and fall of communism is a distant memory in Dorota Maslowska's first novel, Snow White and Russian Red, published in Poland in 2002. The same goes for Irina Denezhkina's short story collection Give Me (Songs for Lovers), published in Russia the same year, while the teens in Hitomi Kanehara's Snakes and Earrings, published in 2003, came of age after Japan's economic bubble burst in the early 90s. Maslowska was 19 and Denezhkina and Kanehara were 20 when they made their respective literary debuts. All three books were best sellers in their native countries; all won or were nominated for major literary prizes; and all are now being released stateside to heaps of hype, touted as portraits of the tormented generations that came of age after the collapse of their nation's 20th-century identities. But not all precocious literary phenoms are created equal: all three build their tales from the raw materials of youthful alienation--sex, drugs, extreme fashion, nihilism--but with vastly different degrees of self-consciousness and toward very different ends.

Snow White and Russian Red was published in Poland by an arts collective called Lampa and in the U.S. by Grove/Atlantic's newly resuscitated Black Cat imprint, the same paperback line that produced Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer. It's narrated by speed freak Andrzej "Nails" Robakoski, who wraps a two-day bender around an escalating feud with his girlfriend, Magda, and the similarly escalating anti-Russian tension whipped up by the burghers of the unnamed city where he lives. Nails is pissed about the "Americanization" of Poland's economy, but Maslowska plays the political posturing and xenophobia as black comedy--at one point Nails and his buddy "Lefty" steal headsets and a soda from McDonald's, screaming at the cashier, "Osama's going to fuck you up for sucking off those Eurococks!" Meanwhile, all the girls in the novel--even Angela, a cheerful satanist/animal-rights activist--are desperate for the kind of money and celebrity that only a capitalist consumer culture can provide. Nails takes Angela's virginity on his mother's pullout bed, and he spends a large part of the rest of book with what's probably her blood caked on his crotch. The image suggests a violent blurring of gender, one of Maslowska's countless experiments in boundary smudging; later, she imagines the white and red of the Polish flag bleeding together into the "flags of a pink state, the kingdom of colored pencils."

The book doesn't hit its stride until the beginning of its second section, when Nails wakes up beside a possibly dead Magda and things start to become a little unhinged; Maslowska's speed jive works better for gonzo misadventure than romantic disillusionment. The language, in Benjamin Paloff's translation, is exhilarating--idiosyncratic like a folk idiom, like a burnout's private conversation with himself. Nails is on one long bad trip, and toward the end of the novel all semblance of realism melts away, leaving only his hallucinatory visions. Maslowska herself appears as a character, first as a flunky of the state, expected to type out a scripted confession of "pro-Russki orientation" for the embattled Nails to sign. Later Nails drives his head through a wall and imagines he sees her giving a lecture on animal-rights abuses at the "emblem factory" where workers gut the eagles that adorn Poland's diplomatic flag. These metafictional gestures are messy and a little hokey, but it's still neat to see Maslowska pop up--looking "at most 13 years old"--in Nails's fevered mind, not to mention in one of the black-and-white illustrations that dot the text.

These kinds of gestures make it clear that Maslowska is grappling with the politics of playing generational weatherwoman. She obviously thinks Nails and his ilk are assholes, but so is everyone else in the story, and he may well be redeemable. And she may be an asshole too. In one scene in which Nails is pinned to hospital sheets after a suicide attempt, Maslowska seems to be simultaneously talking about herself, her book, her main character, and Polish youth in general: "Maybe what's lying here in the bed is just my representative for Poland, maybe it's only my demo tape?"

In a coda Maslowska smudges her biggest boundary yet and switches to the first-person plural. Feminist in the most inclusive sense, nihilistic in the most life-affirming, this generational "we" yearns for a pink, laughing God, scrawls "Satan" where the grown-ups can see, and dodges the world's border wars by going underground. "Meanwhile, we're plotting, on the walls we scratch out a great escape plan to the interior of the earth," she writes. "Everything such that on the world's hand there will grow a sixth, dead finger, so that it'll get it wrong, get lost in the accounts, so that it'll seem that we were never here."

There aren't any such exhilarating fuck-yous in Irena Denezhkina's Give Me (Songs for Lovers), just the kind of vapid materialism and shoddy Russian workmanship, decked out in bunting and streamers, that would make Nails Robakoski foam at the mouth. First published on the Internet, her stories of Russian adolescence were discovered by a critic who nominated them for the country's National Bestseller Prize, then published to big sales and acclaim by a Saint Petersburg press (under, tellingly, their "easy reading" line). Denezhkina, a journalism student, has an eye for the rush of teenage romance, but her world barely contains any conflict deeper than thwarted puppy love. She provides periodic hints of an adult life beyond school--Denya, a spooky young veteran of the fighting in Chechnya, vents his disillusionment in the title story "Give Me!," the best of the lot--but they're crammed between bits of ham-handed internal monologue, annoying rhetorical questions, faux insights, and forced metaphors. One story is named after a Richard Ashcroft video that sounds way more interesting than the story itself, which interminably channel surfs from one boring teen crush to another. In terms of literary tourism, it's like never leaving the bar at the youth hostel.

Denezhkina includes a lot of casual references to sex and violence, but they don't have any aesthetic effect--she's either just casual about sex and violence or casual about the way she uses them in her work.

There's nothing casual, however, about the masochism of Hitomi Kanehara's narrator. Lui, the antihero of Snakes and Earrings, is addicted to "stretching"--to violent sex, to piercing bigger and bigger holes in her body--because pain is the only thing that penetrates her depression. Two beguiling images are all that keep her going: her rage-prone boyfriend's (literally) forked tongue and her sadistic lover's ornate tattoo of a kirin, a mythical Japanese creature. The engine of the plot is admirably simple, progressing over 120 pages toward the day when Lui gets her own forked tongue, when her own tattoo is complete, and when, she predicts, one of the two men either kills her or winds up in jail.

Hiding her real name and background, consciously cutting herself off from the realms of business and family, Lui--"for Louis Vuitton"--goes from bleached-blond "Barbie-girl," occasionally able to play the role of "a pleasant, polite Japanese girl," to an emaciated, alcoholic, unrepentant punk. Whether she's actually creating something new or just being self-destructive, Lui's a perfect demographic spokesmodel, her actions in line with Japanese trends like the sudden popularity of body-modification and the growing number of "freeters," young people who take unskilled part-time jobs instead of seeking the traditional "lifetime employment" after college.

Snakes and Earrings succeeds as a coming-of-age story because, until its facile ending, the narrative stays focused on Lui's still-developing consciousness, totally engaged with youthful emotional conflict. (Kanehara herself left school when she was 11 and left home in her teens.) Still, that the book is a "radical depiction of our time" is why Kanehara won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (awarded to a promising new author) in 2004, why it sold over a million copies in Japan, and why it just doesn't seem quite as essential here in the West. It lacks the splashy irony or sardonic attitude that Western coming-of-age novels, from The Catcher in the Rye to Less Than Zero (both duly referenced in the reviews and marketing copy for all three books), depend on--which might be why Snow White and Russian Red feels more potent.

In the recent anthology Japan's Changing Generations, a group of academics including Loyola's Laura Miller (coeditor of an upcoming collection called Bad Girls of Japan) set out to guess whether the generation gap outlined in Snakes and Earrings is a matter of "life-course"--meaning that today's malcontents will mature into fully socialized adults--or groundwork for a radically different society. Their answer was basically: "We're not sure." You could ask the same question of these three authors, but clues to their future might be found in the way each has responded to the creeping fingers of fame: Denezhkina has continued on at J-school; Kanehara has written a second best-selling book, Ash Baby, about the relationship between a girl and a pedophile; and Maslowska has come out with a 150-page prose-poem, written in a hip-hop style and probably untranslatable, that apparently mocks the media and her own success. It's called Paw krolowej--a double-entendre suggesting both "queen's peacock" and "queen's puke."

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