‘Earthlings’ by Sayaka Murata (Review)

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman was one of the biggest hits in translated fiction over the past few years, so it’s no surprise that Granta Books picked up another of the writer’s novels, with high hopes for its success.  It’ll be very interesting to see how this one goes as it has all the ingredients to do well outside the usual circle of readers, a short, engaging story that takes us to some rather dark places.  We all think we know what it means to be human, but what if we’re just playing along and have never really thought about the rules of the game?  Well, in today’s post I’ll be giving this a little more consideration, and it’s a far more disturbing concept than you might imagine…

Earthlings (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is narrated by Natsuki, a young girl who feels like an outsider in her family.  She has fantasies of being an alien from the planet Popinpobopia, with only her ‘friend’ Piyyut (a fluffy, hedgehog-like toy) knowing her secret.  There is one person she gets on with, though, her cousin Yuu, and when her family makes the annual trip to rural Akishina for a family gathering, she decides to let him in on her secret.

However, on a subsequent trip to the country, the two become a little too close for the family’s liking and are separated.  Years pass, and Natsuki grows up under intense supervision, eventually entering a marriage of convenience to escape scrutiny, but in a society with firm expectations, and where your body doesn’t really belong to you, it’s not that easy to escape.  Eventually, she and her husband Tomoya decide to take a break in the country, where she catches up with Yuu once more, and it’s here that they make one final attempt to avoid their fate of becoming Earthlings.

Readers who enjoyed Convenience Store Woman will see similarities with the previous book here, particularly in the way Keiko and Natsuki are both browbeaten by those around them.  Murata is again shining a light on society, looking at something most wouldn’t consider in need of examination, and her novel shows us that what the majority of us think is ‘normal’ beahviour is anything but when we reflect on it carefully.

From the start, Natsuki is very clear with her clinical view of society:

My town is a factory for the production of human babies.  People live in nests packed closely together.  It’s just like the silkworm room in Granny’s house.  The nests are lined up neatly in rows, and each contains a breeding pair of male and female humans and their babies.  The breeding pairs raise their young inside their nests.  I live in one of these nests too.
p.33 (Granta Books, 2020)

The focus here is on the Factory, where humans are born to procreate and work hard to support civilisation (there are hints of the procreation side of this in Murata’s story ‘A Clean Marriage’, featured in Granta 127: Japan).  If you don’t do as expected, then you’re the proverbial nail that needs hammering down, and throughout Earthlings we see how Natsuki is repeatedly subject to this pressure.  Her friends constantly pressure her into feeling she should have kids, and she’s even hesitant about taking a long break between jobs as it may cause her problems in interviews later.

Another key idea is the pressure to conform, especially from families, and Murata shows the intense scrutiny Natsuki is under, even after growing up.  Despite being adults, she and Tomoya are unable to break these ties, and the best they can do is go undercover, posing as a married couple:

My husband sleepily drank a glass of cold mineral water from the refrigerator, then went to his room.  I’d never set foot in there, but I’d caught a glimpse of some shelves of his favorite books and some model figures that had been precious to him since childhood.  We both spent a lot of time holed up in our respective rooms, but there was nobody here to harrass us about it as there had been when we were little, so it was a pleasant enough experience. (pp.92/3)

Even this apartment, though, is merely a refuge, a place of temporary respite from the outside world, and there’s always the chance that they’ll be summoned to conversations with friends and family, which are actually opportunities for more subtle indoctrination.

While this was all hinted at in Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings, with its darker tone, takes matters a good deal further.  Readers should be warned that the novel features abuse, both sexual and physical, as well as a fair bit of violence, with everything coming together to show how Natsuki became who she is.  Part of this stems from the ‘attentions’ of Igasaki, an abusive cram school teacher, but a lot also has to do with her mother and sister.  Both have their own issues, and Natsuki is singled out as the target of their frustrations and anger.  As a result, she needs a mental escape from reality to cope with daily life.

Another difference between the two books is the way Murata compares her protagonists and mainstream society.  Where Convenience Store Woman only provides occasional hints of Keiko’s dark side, with the reader able to cheer her on happily, Earthlings uses a far more balanced approach.  Of course, we recognise that Natsuki’s family is unreasonable, but as the story progresses, we see the disturbing lengths Natsuki and Tomoya go to as they train themselves to approach the world differently:

Funnily enough, with training we progressed rapidly.  All three of us saw everything from a more rational stance through our alien eyes than we had through Earthling eyes.  Any time one of us creatures discovered something through alien eyes, the other two applauded it.  We judged what we saw not in terms of knowledge or culture but in terms of whether or not it was rational. (p.203)

It all sounds harmless enough, but if you think about it carefully, you’ll realise where this might lead.  The Factory definitely has its drawbacks, but by the end of the book we see what happens if you ignore society’s unwritten rules and try to come up with your own.

Earthlings is generally told in a deadpan, slightly naïve tone, and while that’s to be expected in the chapters looking at Natsuki’s childhood, it’s a little more surprising in the adult sections.  Tapley Takemori captures Natsuki’s cold, often alien voice with its uncomfortable simplicity, but these are blended nicely with the slightly more ‘magical’ elements of the story, such as the narrator’s out-of-body experiences and her conversations with Piyyut.  One final thing to consider is the way Natsuki’s account is occasionally contradicted when events are retold from the perspective of other characters, leading us to wonder whether we can believe everything she’s telling us.

Personally speaking, Convenience Store Woman is a more enjoyable read, but overall Earthlings is probably the better book.  It’s a more daring work, forcing the reader to go where they’d rather not, making them think about what it means to be human and whether we really want total freedom and individuality.  In particular, the final pages, with their breezy tone and disturbing content are shocking in their refusal to conform to our expectations.  As you turn the last page, you can almost hear Murata whispering in your ear: do you *really* want to be free?  You should be very careful what you wish for…

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