A Dystopian Novel That Challenges Taboos and Refuses Judgment

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“I want to use the form of the novel to conduct experiments,” the Japanese writer Sayaka Murata explained as she emerged into the international literary spotlight in 2018. “I can test things that are not possible in the real world.” Her tenth novel, Convenience Store Woman, had by then sold almost 600,000 copies in Japan, and was her first to be translated into English (by Ginny Tapley Takemori). Following its success, Murata had quit the line of work she shared with the first-person narrator of that slim volume. Keiko Furukura is a part-time employee at a Smile Mart in Tokyo, and she is an unsettling blend of gung-ho about her job and coolly detached from the larger world she inhabits. The thoroughly scripted interactions required in the store allow her to pass as “a normal cog in society” for half her life. For her, it’s a curious utopia—until she enters her mid-30s. People start to ask questions about her nonexistent love life and her “dead-end job,” and she tries carving out a different existence. As Keiko conforms to new expectations in her own strange and robotic way, Murata’s hyper-realistic depiction of Japan becomes ever more dystopian.

Is this narrator pathological? Or does the problem lie in a society in which humans are mere parts in a standardized baby-making, money-making machine? Murata is experimenting, not moralizing, and she lets that question propel her story. In Earthlings, her second novel to appear in English (also translated by Takemori), her petri dish is far more outlandish and grotesque. If Convenience Store Woman flirts with a science-fiction-inflected critique of conformity, Earthlings strains the bounds of realism to test foundational taboos of human society—not to mention the reader’s stomach—while never straying from Murata’s signature emotionally flat prose.

"Earthlings" by Sayaka Murata
Grove Atlantic

Earthlings is narrated by another young Japanese woman disenchanted by her society’s twin demands of citizens, to get busy pursuing a career and “manufacturing children.” But Natsuki Sasamoto is more of a self-anointed outsider than Keiko. When the novel opens, she’s in elementary school, observing that her timid father and tyrannical mother favor her anxious older sister and that together they form “a close-knit threesome” without her. Natuski seeks comfort in a plush hedgehog named Piyyut, who, she tells us, is actually “an emissary sent by the Magic Police on Planet Popinpobopia,” and who bestows magical powers on her. After her cousin Yuu confides his own sense of estrangement (he’s an alien “abandoned by a spaceship,” he claims his mother has told him), the duo pledge to marry. It may sound like an endearing childhood fantasy, but in Murata’s world, it doesn’t remain that for long. Severe adult backlash ensues.

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A serially traumatized Natsuki loses her magical powers, her sense of taste, and her hearing in one ear—and she becomes obsessed with fulfilling her role as a “tool for the town’s good” by studying hard and preparing to be a “reproductive organ.” But, as Convenience Store Woman reveals, upholding convention is a vexed endeavor. When we next meet Natsuki, she’s 34 and married to a man she met online, seeking a “businesslike arrangement”—as much of an emotional exile as ever. “All I knew was that love was a mechanism designed to make Earthlings breed,” she notes. “People who couldn’t fall in love had to fake it.” She and Tomoya sleep in separate beds and stagger their mealtimes, sharing only their failure to be “brainwashed by The Factory,” their term for society. When constant surveillance by friends and family becomes too much, the pair makes a daring escape to the home of Natsuki’s grandmother, in the mountains outside of Tokyo. There they connect with Yuu, who is single and unemployed, and set about establishing a small society in defiance of The Factory.

As in Convenience Store Woman, Murata displays her gift for scrambling notions of utopia and dystopia to propulsive effect—only this time, her characters are convinced that they’re rebelling, not conforming. This trio pledges to see things “from a more rational stance” than Earthlings do, intent on being guided by logic rather than prevailing cultural norms. Keiko, by contrast, initially finds her place in an eerie symbiosis with Smile Mart, becoming “one of the cells of the store.” And later, pulled back into a different convenience store, she is enveloped anew: “All its sounds quivered with meaning, the vibrations speaking directly to my cells … For the first time, I could think of the me in the [store] as a being with meaning.”

Whether Keiko is best understood as a normal person with problems (which she knows is her sister’s preferred way of viewing her) or as an abnormal person “for whom everything is fine” (her own view) is the conundrum Murata poses, and dissolves. The uncanny effect is to reveal a world of preprogrammed relationships that bind people together, even as they obscure emotional chasms between them. The speeches that Keiko’s friends and relatives spout about family and motherhood are as rote as the phrases Keiko and her colleagues chant to customers, and they are delivered with even less feeling. For all society’s talk of love and nurturance, under Keiko’s gaze its core value is revealed to be a cheery willingness to serve others 24 hours a day.

In Earthlings, Murata tests out a more brutally exploitative dynamic. Her trio’s quest to claim literal high ground—they head to the mountains, “close to the universe,” hoping to find emotion-free clarity—only reveals their complicity with a rapacious approach to human coexistence. Natsuki earnestly compares their ersatz society of Popinpobopians to “the time before Adam and Eve ate the apple,” but there’s plainly nothing Edenic about it—and their blindness to this reality is no less egregious than the brainwashing they believe keeps others tied to The Factory. Murata’s prose veers from almost slapstick to gruesome, from childlike fantasy to horror, as the trio take to perverse extremes the wedding vow that Natsuki and Yuu made as kids to “survive, whatever it takes.”

Parasitism, rather than soul-deadening symbiosis, becomes the focus. Out of work and low on cash, the three ration electricity from the Earthling grid, scavenge food from neighboring Earthling homes—and, when things get desperate, consider cannibalism as their twisted (and comically shortsighted) anti-procreative route to survival. As they challenge the ultimate taboo, devouring “Miso Soup with Man” and “Man Simmered in Sweetened Soy Sauce,” Natsuki regains her sense of taste. But such meals can only sate them for so long: “How about we all taste a little bit of each other and then decide to eat each other in the order of how good we taste?” Yuu soon suggests. Once the three of them have “started in on each other’s innards with our teeth and tongues”—and all, miraculously, live through the feasting—Natsuki claims to at last have truly shaken society’s grasping hold on her: “That day, my body became completely my own.”

This flight into fable, or the mockery of fable, may sound like an off-the-rails experiment, detached from any reality you could ever fathom—but that’s precisely the power of Earthlings. Even Murata’s outsider trio, intent on escape, can’t outrun certain deeply ingrained beliefs. The society they create only amplifies the greed and savagery of the one they came from; their only real advancements are to shed all talk of nurturing and pretense of civility. But Murata manages what her characters cannot: She transcends society’s core values, to dizzying effect. As Earthlings swerves into violent, transgressive, fantastical territory, Murata—ever the good scientist—keeps us in thrall by never putting her thumb on the scale. Her matter-of-fact rendering of wild events is as disorienting as it is intriguing. There is no right or normal, there is a narrator but no clear protagonist. Again and again, Murata frustrates our desire to make judgments or find meaning based on accepted norms. If the book’s ending feels unreal and unsatisfying, perhaps Murata has succeeded in her experiment—and we were her subjects all along.