"It's really hard to put into words things that are just a little bit not okay." So says the protagonist of Sayaka Murata's Earthlings, leading us down a merry path that ends with one of the most visceral, unforgettable descriptions of lives gone awry that you might ever read. This is the Japanese author's 11th novel but only her second in English. It follows Convenience Store Woman (2018), with both novels deftly translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
In Convenience Store Woman, Murata gave us Keiko, a character on the fringes who is just about surviving as she watches her female friends and relations fall easily into marriage and family life. A sharp and funny novel, it balanced the profound with the quirky and was a hit with readers across the world.
This second book has similar things to say about the individual's role in society but it takes them up a notch in a story that is part allegory, part horror. Whereas Convenience Store Woman gave us the familiar world of a woman working in a local shop, Earthlings follows the life of Natsuki from early adolescence to adult against a backdrop that is both magical and terrifying. Think Miranda July, or Cathy Sweeney's recent debut, Modern Times – surrealist fiction that is not too far away from the theatre of the grotesque.
In Earthlings, there is a dire realism underpinning the magic elements – a storyline of a paedophile teacher whose abuse of Natsuki is dismissed by all her closest female relatives and friends in various ways. Her mother accuses her of being a dirty girl, her friends think her deficient, her sister is worried about her own social standing if people find out. It causes Natsuki to withdraw into her magical world of Popinpobopians in the hope that some alien race might save her from the inhumanity.
Lighten the load
Early chapters are set among extended family in the mountainous territory of Akishina. The only person Natsuki feels comfortable with is her cousin Yuu, another outsider. Together they form a plan to get married and look for alien life. Things progress alarmingly quickly in both departments, with glimpses of the humour from Convenience Store Woman lightening the load along the way.
To say too much about the plot would not only spoil things but also put readers off their weekend breakfast. The book should come with a warning on the cover: not for the squeamish or faint of heart.
For the rest of us, Earthlings is a radical rollercoaster of a story that zips along from one outlandish scenario to the next. Later chapters see Natsuki married to a sexually repressed and suicidal man who she meets through an online matching service for social misfits. The husband, Tomoya, hates human touch, can’t stand the sight of bare skin, and hopes that by “committing an incestuous act, he might be able to become something nonhuman”.
The book lacks the restraint of Convenience Store Woman, and Murata doesn’t care if it’s palatable to readers. This is both a good and bad thing. Sometimes the zaniness of the plot leads to rushed transitions and gaps in information and character development, but ultimately the author is to be applauded in her aim, namely to provoke revulsion and anger at the way people, women in particular, are viewed by society as procreators.
Labelled a degenerate
In Earthlings, this becomes “the Factory”, a system that her three oddball characters plan to avoid at all costs. Their motto? “Survive, whatever it takes.” Everyone else in the book is horrible, their lack of humanity deliberately exaggerated by Murata.
It is a cruel and absurd world where Natsuki can legitimately ask her parents, “Why shouldn’t children have sex? There are plenty of grown-ups who want to have sex with children. So why is it wrong if they’re both children?” Unwilling to face up to the darkness behind such questions, the parents instead label their daughter a degenerate.
It is these kind of chilling details that give heart to the book, pulling us out of the fantasy and gore back to the brutal reality of Natsuki’s existence: “Mom always told me off when she was irritable. She wasn’t telling me off for my own good but because she needed a punching bag. By hitting me with her words not her hands, she regained her composure.”
Murata, who has won all of Japan’s major literary prizes, spent 18 years working part-time in convenience stores before the success of Convenience Store Woman afforded her the freedom to write full time. That novel has sold more than two million copies worldwide and been translated into 23 languages. The wacky Earthlings might not have quite as many fans, but for those who are shocked by its developments, Natsuki herself has the answer:
“People can easily pass judgment on others when they’re protected by their own normality.”