Earthlings

by Sayaka MurataGinny Tapley Takemori (Translator)

I just can’t get over how uncomfortable I feel. Any maybe this book deserves 5 stars (Like the first of Murata’s books Convenience Store Woman that I loved but was arguably more connected to reality) because of how it stirred up all these feelings…but in the end some of it was just too…disaffected and surreal.

I am no stranger to the ways Japanese literature uses surreal to really exacerbate the cracklines of human society (check out Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe) however Murata makes this so visceral and physical at times it deeply disturbed me.

And maybe that’s the point. This is the story of Yu and Natsuki, which starts as a nostalgic and innocent depiction of extended family gatherings in a rural farm in Akishina. Little by little, however, it becomes apparent that Natsuki is using fantasy, in this case that she has a stuffed animal that is an alien and gives her advice, to shield herself from pretty traumatic abuse and neglect.

Not to mention sexual abuse from a teacher.

Yu is her cousin, and main source of emotional comfort, and the reaction of the family when that relationship is discovered (twisted by Natsuki’s experience with her abuser) is the beginning of a disgust that I couldn’t help feeling while still maintaining an absolute sympathy for the two main characters (an added main character comes in later but I never attached any sympathy to him, he was a caricature and plot device I felt).

But this is not a soap opera or after school special. The narrative is presented in an utterly naive, innocent, straight-forward voice of Natsuki, who becomes convinced that society is “the factory” and that the factory has brainwashed everyone into becoming baby factories and worker people. She agonizingly recognizes her own lack of brainwashing and aloneness (parental and teacher figures are the main abusers here emphasizing the failings of society to protect the innocent).

Some of the repetitiveness and simplicity of Natsuki’s voice felt stilted at times, and my eyes tended to start skimming over the repeated phrases about the factory and her womb, etc.

But then again, as I said before, the book lingers powerfully in its ability to arouse deeply uncomfortable feelings with the simplest / transparent prose (kudos to the translator).

I would be remiss without warning you that the ending becomes very, very surreal and disturbing and might not be something squeamish folks would want to read. I can’t say more without spoilage but it contains the kind of gore that most USAians aren’t used to reading in literary fiction. (but is more common I think in Japanese media).