Imagine if Ryū Murakami and Ian McEwan tutored a young author. How warped would the stories be? Well, I think Hitomi Kanehara has just solved that riddle.
Autofiction is off-the-wall crazy! With extreme scenes of sex and violence (all the good stuff), this one reads like a pulpy ride through a seedy Japanese underbelly. It’s made all the more disturbing by its autobiographical nature.
As autobiographical fiction (hence the title), Hitomi Kanehara recounts some of her more challenging times growing up in Japan. This includes dropping out of school at the age of 11 and then leaving home at just 15. From here, she pursued her passion for writing with the support of her father, a literary professor and translator.
At 21, she wrote her first novel, Snakes and Earrings, which won both the Shōsetsu Subaru Literary Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, making it a bestseller in Japan. Along with Risa Wataya, Kanehara is one of the youngest authors to win the Akutagawa Prize.
Autofiction was first released in Japan, July 2006 and, upon success, was translated into English and printed by Vintage in February 2008.
The story follows Rin and is split into three sections; current day with Rin at the age of 22, Rin aged 18, 16 and 15. These were also all the main points in her life when she had relationships. Unfolding in reverse chronological order shows how Rin became the guarded, obsessive woman she is now.
Constantly second-guessing her new husband, paranoid of the women around trying to steal him away, the novel opens on an aeroplane as they return home from their honeymoon.
As her husband gets up to go to the bathroom, Rin falls asleep, quickly diving into a nightmare plot that sees him having hasty sex with an air stewardess in the toilet.
To begin to understand Autofiction, it’s worth having a look at what autobiographical fiction is.
Autofiction combines two narrative, autobiography and fiction, into one. There are options of recounting a life, but in third-person or modifying perspectives to give a more dramatic/concise story. Fictitious plots and imagined characters are often added, creating new scenarios.
Truman Capote famously used a new narrative method when writing In Cold Blood, which plays on many of these points.
Hitomi Kanehara decides on a more experimental approach, reversing chronological orders, and pushing characters to their absolute limits. This is reminiscent of Ryū Murakami, another Japanese author who likes to take extreme situations, most noticeably in his highly acclaimed novel, In The Miso Soup.
Although the context can be a little quasi-pseudo, there’s definitely thought behind Rin’s transformation.
As a young girl, you can see how she falls into the wrong groups and is subsequently mistreated and sexually abused. As the process develops, her mind begins to fracture, causing a deep distrust in those around her. This is especially true when it comes to relationships.
Often gritty and unflinching, Kanehara’s writing is like a pin that’s constantly prickling your hand. It’s uncomfortable yet manageable; however, by the end, you recognise it’s had more of an impact than you first realised.
As a nihilist, Rin also suffers from severe anxiety, most noticeably when concerning sex – which given the circumstances, is understandable. A woman who becomes jealous on her honeymoon all because an air stewardess was polite to her husband, is a woman with a traumatic past.
Autofiction is one of those bizarre pulp novels that are either your favourite adrenaline read or complete trash. Fortunately, I sway more towards the aforementioned camp. If you’re willing to leave your suspension for belief on the first page, then this one is a fun read.
Yes, Rin is a psychotic maniac with a large self-destruct button she can’t help pressing over and over. But equally, she does show moments of emotional vulnerability as a broken individual.