Society is one of these concepts we might fail to adequately define, but we all know what it means. Ironically, even more universal than this implicit understanding is the feeling that one just does not belong. This is certainly a feeling familiar to Sayaka Murata, and it’ll be familiar to readers of her first book translated into English, Convenience Store Woman, as well. But while Earthlings, Murata’s second novel translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori, plays with many of the same themes, the destination and overall effect is vastly different. In Earthlings, Murata revels in the otherness itself rather than the implications, losing some of the bite of her previous work.
Like the narrator in Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings‘ heroine Natsuki is certain she doesn’t belong. The book spans a swath of her life, from a few childhood incidents, to the effect they precipitated on Natsuki’s adulthood. In Convenience Store Woman, the narrator, Keiko, feels like she’s an outcast. She only finds solace by leaning into the society she feels so alienated by, in her work in a convenience store. In that book, Murata shows a deft hand, expertly assessing and critiquing society on both sides of the coin; both the bought-in and the othered. However, in Earthlings, Murata doesn’t allow herself the same nuance, and instead seems to feel the need to up the ante at each turn.
I’m rare to give a warning, but this isn’t a book for the faint of heart. Earthlings features graphic descriptions of abuse, sexual assault, murder, and more. Despite the decidedly more severe tones of this book compared to the quirkiness of Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s indictment of contemporary society is quixotically softer in Earthlings.
Earthlings opens as Natsuki, age eleven, rides towards her Grandmother’s mountain home, longing to be reunited with her boyfriend. This boyfriend turns out to be her Cousin, Yuu, who is the same age as her. The two have bonded over a mutual feeling of being outcasts, as Yuu is convinced he’s an alien from another world. What’s more, nestled in Natsuki’s bag are a mirror and wand, as she’s convinced she has magic powers bestowed upon her by Piyyut, a stuffed hedgehog toy she purchased in the grocery store. Natsuki and Yuu meet once yearly for the Obon holiday, a Buddhist festival welcoming and honoring a family’s ancestors, celebrated at her Grandmother’s house. It’s a family reunion of sorts, with the extended families nestling into the matriarch’s large, traditional, estate.
Once there, Yuu and Natsuki are reunited, but only temporarily as Natsuki’s older sister (and the clear favorite), Kise, says she’s ill, cutting the vacation short. Natsuki is well aware she’s the second child, and this blatant favoritism is only the first and most minor in a series of events relayed to us in a rather abusive relationship with her mother. Her mother repeatedly demeans her daughter, often in front of her, and is prone to striking her. Natsuki takes this to be punishment for her inherent flaws as presented by her mother, rather than outbursts or a pattern of abusive behavior, despite witnessing her mother’s temper at work one day. With the pair soon to be torn apart once more, Natsuki suggests advancing her relationship with Yuu, and the two undergo a marriage pledge together — complete with rings.
The school year is uneventful as Natsuki counts down the days to summer, when she will be able to reconnect with Yuu. However, Summer also brings tutoring at cram school. There, the young teacher, Mr. Igasaki, coerces Natsuki and begins molesting her. Natsuki tries to tell her mother about the abuse, but her mother doesn’t believe her and then blames her for her “misunderstanding.” Without her mother’s protection, this escalates over the course of a few summers. Her relationship with Yuu also escalates, until everything condenses down into a single terrible summer, where two tragic incidents drag Natsuki down, with the weight of a black hole.
Flash forward, and Natsuki is now an adult. She’s married a man named Tomoya whom she met online, and whose trauma-addled past has prevented him, too, from slotting neatly into society. The two live a comfortable if unconventional life; cooking and eating separately, sleeping apart, and completely dividing the housework. The two aren’t in love, but they’ve found a partnership that works for one another, and enjoy the other’s company enough. Similarly, the two have kept up and lean into the alien identity Yuu first presented in the novel. However, this equal partnership isn’t enough to satisfy the pressures of society at large, which they call “the Factory.”
Tomoya becomes enamored by stories of Natsuki’s grandmother’s home, and wanting a break from the Factory, the pair decide to take a vacation at the home in the mountains, which has been abandoned until it became recently occupied by — of course — Yuu. Before long, the three turn the home into something of a commune, all unified in their identification as aliens from the Planet Popinpobopia. And despite the unsettling start, things only spiral from there.
Murata once again manages to identify failures in contemporary society in Earthlings. And like in Convenience Store Woman before it, both main characters ultimately embrace their otherness. But in Earthlings her characters attempt to isolate themselves, deciding the distance too great to bridge, unlike Convenience Store Woman’s Keiko whose self-realization leads her to embrace her niche. This leaning-in in Convenience Store Woman offered Murata another perspective from which to document society’s failings. By going the opposite route in Earthlings, she doesn’t allow herself the same opportunity. That’s not to say her criticisms or assessments aren’t just as clear-eyed as before; they are. Her writing remains compelling down to the sentence level, though at times the words feel more like Murata’s than Natsuki’s. Murata’s focus seems to be simply on highlighting the depravity we as Earthlings can engage in. She calls attention to some aspects of the Factory we take for granted; but her drive to continually escalate the scenario and push the line undermines this aim. Convenience Store Woman left me eager to read another book of Murata’s — after Earthlings, I’m once again left waiting.
By Sayaka Murata
Published October 6th, 2020
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.