This anti-capitalist novel explores what it means to be 'normal' in an abnormal world
'Earthlings', the newly translated follow up to Sayaka Murata's debut 'Convenience Store Woman', is not for the squeamish. You should read it anyway.
When Japanese novelist Sayaka Murata’s first English translation, Convenience Store Woman, was released in 2018, critics were both impressed and bemused. The story follows Keiko Furukura, a woman in her mid-30s who has worked at a convenience store, a staple of Japanese life, for 18 years. She exists outside society, considered unusual for many reasons: her temperament, her social skills, her lack of desire to start a family. After she shacks up with a man for the appearance of a normal life to appease her family and friends, Keiko quits the store, finding herself adrift without the comforts of her routine. Critics lazily deemed the book “quirky”, “weird” and “eerie”, calling Keiko herself “depraved” and “psychopathic”.
Earthlings, Murata’s second book to be translated into English, is out today, and while it’s very different to Convenience Store Woman, it’s likely that reviewers will feel similarly. Its cover, adorned with a cuddly hedgehog toy, is deceptively sweet. The story follows a child, Natsuki, who also finds it difficult to fit in. She confides in the toy, Piyyut, actually “an emissary sent by the Magic Police on Planet Popinpobopia”, and he helps her to use her “magical powers”. After traumatic events shatter her childhood, we fast-forward to meet Natsuki in her mid-30s, still struggling to fit in. She calls society “The Factory” a commentary on the ways the world expects people, especially women, to fit in and have babies. Its anti-capitalist messaging is hardly new, but Murata manages to spin it in a way that means it’s nothing like Fight Club.
As a child, Natsuki realises that the only way to survive is to fit in at all costs: “I had to become a factory component as quickly as possible. I had to develop my brain and grow my body to help the society I was being raised in,” she thinks after a painful fight with her mother. She expects to be “brainwashed” as she grows older, but instead finds fitting in more and more painful, and, not to spoil it, things devolve and descend into violence as she gives up entirely on being an Earthling. The book isn’t for the squeamish, and it’s beyond reality, but it contains valuable messages both for people who exist on the outside of society and those who have never quite considered what it means to be “normal”. When watching two people interact, Natsuki observes, “Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it”.
Convenience Store Woman might, reviewers speculated, have been a fluke, but with newest release, Earthlings, Murata’s intention becomes clear. When I read Convenience Store Woman in one sitting by the pool in Palm Springs last year, back when we could still do things like that, I was drawn to its pink cover but put off by the pull quotes calling it “quirky”. I was surprised, and touched, to see myself somewhat represented in it. As an autistic person, Murata’s sparse, straightforward prose is easy to read and get lost in. But it wasn’t just her linguistic style; reading Keiko struggle through social interactions, pushing down her own emotions and observing how other people interact and mimicking how they speak, I saw myself. When I worked in the service industry, I struggled with the social expectations of the job, but, like Keiko, I found comfort in having a script and a routine. I thought I was alone until I read autistic novelist Naoise Dolan’s piece on the Guardian earlier this year: “I thought I was too different to see myself in a novel – but Sayaka Murata got me.”
Then I read, well, the other reviews, and I felt the sick gut-punch of how people actually often see me and other autistic people: as either naive and endearing or calculating and depraved. That is, perhaps, Murata’s point; speaking to the New York Times, she said she, “wanted to illustrate how odd the people who believe they are ordinary or normal are.” She lays bare the processes of every day conversation and functioning that autistic people and other “outsiders” have to work to understand; the strange, convoluted ways people speak to one another and the things they expect from each other without actually saying it, punishing those who don’t get it.
Throughout Earthlings, Natsuki is admonished for not changing in the same ways Keiko is in Convenience Store Woman, for not “growing up”, for not giving over her body and mind to society and starting a family. Despite its surreality, there’s a gentler message about the ways trauma can stunt and affect us throughout our lives, too, as Natsuki struggles to want to have sex or settle down after all she’s been through. “All I can do is keep my head down and pretend to live as an earthling,” she says, fighting her natural inclinations. If Convenience Store Woman is about, in part, the comforts of routines and scripts, Earthlings is about the opposite: the freedom to be found when you stop trying, when you abandon all of the rules and indulge entirely in what makes you feel good and comfortable at any cost.
It’s not yet clear exactly what the same reviewers who found Convenience Store Woman unsettling will think of the far more violent Earthlings. Goodreads users oscillate between being confused at just how much they love it and horrified at how much they hate it; it’s nasty, cruel, evil. I found the opposite. It’s a sharp interrogation of the way our brains and bodies react to trauma and to feeling “other” that forces anyone to question what their place is, what’s truly necessary to exist in society, and what “normal” truly means.
Through both Earthlings and Convenience Store Woman, albeit with very different tones, Murata has established herself as an absurd, heightened voice for society’s outsiders. Reading Earthlings as an autistic person, I felt the warm recognition of just being seen. Not in the violence, obviously, but in Natsuki’s discomfort, in her obsessive need to pick apart other’s interactions in an attempt to wear their skin, ultimately finding that she couldn’t exist as an Earthling no matter how hard she tried. Murata’s novels are a valuable, heightened exploration of the intense discomfort that people, autistic or not, who are just a little outside of society can feel when they try to force themselves to fit in. Murata’s message is: stop trying.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata is available now via Granta.