Before I get started on Earthlings, I feel the need to revisit my experience with Sayaka Murata’s previous novel, Convenience Store Woman. I was blown away by that book! In my reading of it, I brought my previous work experience as a job coach into the way I realized the character. I supported clients with various diagnoses, including those on the autism spectrum. It was these clients in particular I saw represented in Murata’s character, Keiko; in the routines she developed for herself, in the way she mirrored actions that she had learned were expected and accepted, and in the way she found great relief in the regimented practices inherent in the operation of the convenience store. I haven’t heard any other reviewer of the book make any mention of neurodiversity being represented in the novel, so it’s more than possible I saw something that wasn’t there.
In Earthlings, Murata once again crafts a story around a character on the outside of what is acceptable in mainstream society (referred to in this novel as “the factory”). While in Convenience Store Woman she was able to convey otherness in a way that endeared the character to the reader and made society’s obsession with conformity the major conflict, the plot of Earthlings devolves into complete chaos. It’s absurd and, quite frankly, pointless.
The main character in Earthlings, Natsuki, believes she is a magician, granted powers by a stuffed hedgehog which is actually an alien from the planet Popinbopia. Her cousin, Yuu, believes he is an alien and that he must find the spaceship that will bring him back to his home plant. Later in the novel Natsuki’s husband, Tomoyo, also becomes obsessed with this idea of being alien. The story contains on the page mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that make you think, “Ok, it is totally reasonable for the character to dissociate in this way.” But because the story is told in first person by this unreliable narrator, there is no sense of understanding that her delusions are actually coping mechanisms. Instead we watch from a distance as one after another terrible choice is made and the characters learn nothing, only to become more and more carried away by their fantasies.
The story is gory and obscene in a way I was unprepared for… but I can accept that as the author’s choice. I can’t accept, though, the utter lack of development. At one point I thought- well, maybe Murata will use the unconventional marriage of Natsuki and Tomoyo to demonstrate compassion and adaptive practices that will help them, if not assimilate, at least succeed in living parallel to mainstream society (like we saw Keiko do in CSW). There was a point when I was actually endeared by the way they accepted and supported each others idiosyncrasies. Instead Murata turns their relationship into a shit-show of absolute insane proportion…. and they take poor Yuu down with them.
This was not an enjoyable read. Not because of the content (which itself was not fun, but whatever…authors can push boundaries as much as they want, totally fine!) but because ultimately I feel like the reader walks away from this mess with nothing. I want to address a blurb on the cover by Elif Batuman (an author I am unfamiliar with). They wrote, “I loved this book! It easily converted me to being an alien. Radical, hilarious, heartbreaking.” I have to wonder if we read the same book. I’ve seen mentions of this book’s “humor” in other places… where’s the joke? I love dark humor. I thoroughly enjoy satire. There was nothing funny here. And at no point did being an alien seem like a good idea. Sure, they made valid points about society being a factory obsessed with fitting in… but never did being an alien feel like the right choice either.
Read Convenience Store Woman. It’s wonderful.
I won’t tell you NOT to read this one but, at the risk of being spoilery, be prepared for abuse, sexual assault of a minor, incest, violence, and last but not least- cannibalism.