Vogue magazine’s 2016 Woman of the Year, Sayaka Murata, worked in a convenience store for most of her life. Even the success of her book Convenience Store Woman, her first to be translated into English by Ginny Tapley, and now translated into over thirty languages, did not deter her from her work, “until the attentions of an obsessive fan forced her to stop” according to The Guardian. She has won every prestigious literary award in Japan and achieved cult success for her cool, detached, almost science-fiction style of writing.
But if you have read Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings may disappoint you. Although it has a similar female protagonist who can’t seem to see the world the way others around her do, and narrates her story with the deadpan humour readers now associate with Murata, Earthlings is still in many ways nothing like Convenience Store Woman. And that’s a good thing.
Keiko, the heroine of Convenience Store Woman, has worked a “dead-end job” for eighteen years. Though she has the support of her elder sister, her family is still unable to understand why she can’t be “normal.” She is uninterested in sex and marriage, she does not want to have children, and she believes her body belongs to her workplace. Murata describes her character Keiko as a hero; someone who is unafraid of what people think of her.
Though the author herself worked in a convenience store, didn’t marry or have children, and generally finds it hard to fit in, she claims she still cares what people think and could never be like her famous character. Her book has been upheld as a literary accomplishment because many readers see a critique of late-stage capitalism and the oppressive nature of society in the book.
Murata’s latest book to be translated into English, Earthlings, sits more demurely on the realism spectrum of literature. Here, the protagonist Natsuki is seen from childhood to adulthood. She’s been sexually abused as a middle-school kid and lives with a controlling mother and unappreciative sister:
“The phrase ‘close-knit family,’ which I’d come across in a school library book and had stuck in my mind, always came back to me whenever I saw my parents and sister together. If I wasn’t here, the three of them would make a perfect unit. So I wanted them to spend time together as a close-knit family without me now and then.”
While Keiko isn’t trying to rebel by being unmarried or working her so called dead-end job, Natsuki does not want to live like a human. Keiko can’t help who she is: “When morning comes, once again I’m a convenience store worker, a cog in society. This is the only way I can be a normal person.” When she was a child and her parents were called into school due to her odd behaviour, everyone wanted to know Keiko’s situation at home, eager to blame her supposed oddities on a childhood trauma.
Natsuki has the trauma that makes her more “relatable” or less of an “oddball.” She is unable to taste food and hear in one ear, and has a marriage with a man who finds it as hard to fit into society as she does. They both despise the idea of sex and live in separate rooms, careful not to show any skin in the common areas of the house. Somehow, when one reads Earthlings, one isn’t immediately alienated despite the sparse style of writing and the strange life Natsuki lives.
Keiko is always trying to reproduce the speech patterns and styles of her coworkers so that she can fit in. Natsuki too wants to be brainwashed into becoming a “baby-making machine” so that her life can get easier. In the way both characters look at society, they are perhaps similar. But while Keiko cannot understand what makes her different from everyone else, Natsuki is painfully aware of what sets her apart.
“I hadn’t told my family, but I was a magician, a real one with actual magical powers. I’d met Piyyut in the supermarket by the station when I was six and had just started elementary school. He was right on the edge of the soft toy display and looked as though he was about to be thrown out. I bought him with the money I’d received at New Year’s. Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from Planet Popinpobopia.”
Although Piyyut hadn’t spoken to her in years, her plush toy was never abandoned, and neither was Natsuki’s belief in her supernatural powers.
When Natsuki was a kid, she went to Nagano mountains with her family every year for the Obon festival. There she met her cousin Yuu, a confidant, who too claimed he did not belong to Earth and who knew of her magical powers. From childhood fantasy, Murata shifts us to discomfort. The pre-pubescent cousins, who are united in their loneliness and alienation, decide to marry and “survive, whatever it takes,” and eventually are caught having sex in the middle of the night.
Natsuki doesn’t understand what’s wrong with consensual sex, but when she meets Yuu as an adult, he admits that what they did was wrong. It tore apart their families and eventually led to his mother’s suicide. But Natsuki feels differently. Her belief that she is other-worldly or magical is no longer an innocent, child-like fantasy, but a delusion that keeps her feeling safe in a harsh world.
Natsuki sees herself as the “other,” but has never been allowed to live as the “other.” When her family finds out that she and her husband don’t even sleep with each other, she is lectured, despite her reluctance to become useful to the “Factory.”
Keiko and Natsuki both conclude their bodies do not belong to them. Keiko is aware that there are expectations society has of women, but her body belongs to the convenience store. The water she drinks, the food she eats, and the sounds she hears are all from the convenience store. She enters a live-in relationship with a man who promises to leech off of her.
She lets him hide in her bathtub and gives him boiled vegetables as his “feed.” But ultimately, she realises that she cannot quit her job at the store, despite it being the right decision to make for society’s sake, because she belongs to the convenience store and can only live as a convenience store woman. The reader doesn’t know whether she gets rid of him, but realises ultimately that Keiko is doing what is natural to her. She’s living her truth. It might make us uncomfortable, but it’s a happy ending.
The dark side
Natsuki, on the other hand, is oppressed by the fact that her body does not belong to her and escapes into the mountains where she once committed the sin of sleeping with a cousin, so that she can reclaim her body. Her husband accompanies her along with Yuu, who realises that he’s always lived by the commands of society and no longer wants to. The three of them decide to break the rules set by “Earthlings”. They steal food from their neighbours, they disconnect the telephone, and they stop doing laundry or wear clothes. For them, non-conformity is the ultimate key to happiness, and they will do anything to achieve it.
While the characters experiment with what taboos they can break, Murata experiments with our minds. Natsuki eventually does gain control of her body. The ending is uncomfortable, yet again, though happy for the protagonist. Can this ending make us happy too?
It’s no surprise that Murata’s latest work is just as wonderfully weird as the earlier one, the kind that you read in horror and confusion. Murata isn’t trying to be remotely relatable, but her work nevertheless appeals to a darker part of the human psyche that is sick of conforming to the demands of genteel society.
Natsuki is the character one would confide in when one is disenchanted by society. But a reader can’t depend on her to have their feelings soothed. Instead, one can only watch as she makes a series of decisions that turn the novel from realism to horror and gore. Murata told The Guardian, “The people who know me through Convenience Store Woman are disappointed. But I was a cult writer before that success. People are saying the old Murata has returned.” For readers in the English language, the old Murata’s debut will often be nauseating, but she isn’t out there to give us an unflinching read.
Earthlings, Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley, Granta.