Earthlings: A Novel
(Grove Press, 2020)
Sayaka Murata’s (Convenience Store Woman, 2019) new novel is a deeply disturbing exploration of one woman’s attempt to try to survive outside cultural norms in Japanese society. Natsuki is 11 years old at the start of the novel and has a secret: she is “a magician, a real one with actual magical powers” granted her by her toy hedgehog Piyyut. Piyyut is Natsuki’s best friend and an alien from the Planet Popinpobopia sent on a mission to save Earth. Abused and neglected by her immediate family, Natsuki finds solace in her secret and in her friendship with her cousin Yuu who confesses to her that he is also an alien. Although they only see each other once a year when the extended family gathers for the Obon festival at their grandparents’ remote house in Akishina, the two children form a close bond, staging a marriage pact where they agree to “Survive, whatever it takes.” It’s a tall order for two children who feel their bodies aren’t their own: Yuu at the mercy of his abusive mother who tells him he’s an alien and treats him like a surrogate husband and Natsuki, humiliated and sexually abused by a teacher and beaten by her mother when she reveals the man’s abuse. For Natsuki, one of her important powers is “the magical power of invisibility. I didn’t actually become invisible. I just held my breath and could make myself go unnoticed.” Because of her teacher’s abuse, Natsuki has lost her sense of taste and the hearing in her right ear. When she decides to claim her body for her own before her teacher can do more harm, she and Yuu are caught “swimming in each other’s bodies” and separated “for good.”
Over the course of six chapters and 23 years, Natsuki strives to find a delicate balance in a world she sees as “the Factory” where humans exist only to reproduce and those who don’t marry or reproduce are marginalized and maligned. She marries Tomoya, a man whose own history of abuse has left him with a deep horror of women’s bodies and any physical contact. Together, they live in a two-bedroom apartment sharing a quiet, organized but separate life always under the intense scrutiny of “the Factory”: friends, family, and co-workers who constantly pressure them to reproduce. Natsuki tells Tomoya stories about her grandparents’ house until it becomes a sort of talisman for him for escape. When he’s fired from his job for stealing, Tomoya wants to die but Natsuki is able to distract him by suggesting a trip to the house in Akishina. It’s a trip that is frowned on by Natsuki’s family (in what she refers to as a “TV drama”) until Tomoya’s parents suggest it will be good for the couple. Cousin Yuu, Natsuki learns, has been laid off from his job and is living in the old house with an elderly uncle. But instead of a possible unfolding of a rekindled romance between Yuu and Natsuki, what transpires is both horrifyingly bizarre and wildly transcendent; there are no traditionally romantic “Earthling” endings in store for these three.
Murata doesn’t shy away from writing extreme violence (some may be too much for some readers) and at times the graphic gore can seem gratuitous but there are also elements of sharp cultural critique and very dark humor that help to shift this novel into a powerfully good read. For these three brutalized “aliens” the idea that they are not “Earthlings” but instead stranded beings from another planet becomes a deeply logical survival tactic. How they decide to escape the contagion of “normality” and embrace the motto, “survive, whatever it takes,” follows a certain (albeit deadly) logic too. When Natsuki’s husband suggests they have a mutual divorce: he from Natuski and Yuu and Natsuki from their childhood “marriage,” the divorce “ceremony” focuses on the admonition to “live life for life’s sake as long as you shall live.” Together the three of them move into the old house and develop a new way of living: embracing their own “alien”/non-Earthling identities and rejecting societal norms and taboos, finding a new rhythm of life that shifts away from time and order and becomes focused only on food, warmth, and survival. As Yuu says toward the end of the novel, “I want to be the one who decides how to use my own body.” For Natsuki, the time spent with Yuu and Toyoma in the old house is transformative: she no longer has a need to become invisible and she begins to feel something like sexual pleasure but without oppression and fear.
Despite the Gothic-romantic setting of the three young people snowed in, the old house in the woods full of happy childhood memories, the need for all three to keep warm in the same “nest,” this isn’t a love story— at least not a traditional love story. This instead, is a story of survival: despite the myriad of wrongs done to their bodies, these three “aliens” have found a way to transcend, to escape the oppression of “the Factory,” to reclaim their bodies, and to “survive, whatever it takes!”