“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 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.