Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
How do you feel about the prospect of someone having sex with their grandfather? And them justifying it by the fact that the grandfather is in a vegetable state in a hospital so he wouldn’t even notice?
If screaming, running away or calling the police are among your reactions, you’re probably an Earthling. The protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s new novel, however, is not.
Murata rose to fame with Convenience Store Woman, a story of misfits who don’t conform to society’s expectations. Earthlings grapples with the same theme — but at an exponentially higher level. It’s out to shock.
11-year-old Natsuki is acutely aware that she doesn’t fit in; not in her family, nor in society in general. The latter for her is the Factory, where people are expected to become tools in the machinery, work and reproduce to provide more tools. She finds a soulmate in her cousin Yuu, who is convinced that he is an alien stranded on Earth and waiting for a spaceship to take him home. Until then, they make a pact to survive, no matter what. However, after a scandal, the cousins are ripped apart to live their separate lives in their Factory surroundings. We meet Natsuki again in her thirties, still an outsider, still a believer that she is surrounded by the Factory, still finding ways to survive.
To say more would spoil Earthlings because its power lies in its unexpectedness. Murata cheerfully breaks taboos and when you think she can’t go further, she will, sticking two fingers up at all that is conventional. The grotesque, bizarre and simply gross is narrated with nearly child-like simplicity, without much questioning, and the effect is uncanny. I always thought that I could take the crassest jokes and tolerate what others couldn’t, but Earthlings forces you to self-reflect on your internalized norms (and how much a part of the Factory you are). It borders on tastelessness, and there are definitely times when I wanted to put the book down.
But I didn’t, because in all its inappropriateness Earthlings doesn’t fall into the trap of shocking for the sake of shocking. It goes so far to deliver messages about darker themes on the kinds of effects abuse — emotional and sexual — can have and how oppressive norms can be. Murata doesn’t go for clichés or shy away from the ugliness and perversity of what happens. There are scenes that hit the reader with extreme discomfort — as they should. It has a cutesy cover and a blurb that will make it sound like Convenience Store Woman revisited, but make no mistake: it’s very much not. Earthlings is powerful allegory of what it’s like not to fit in — but you will have to push the boundaries of what you’re willing to read to get there.
Anna is a bookworm and journalist.
Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (Granta, 2020). 978-1783785674, 256pp., hardback.