Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

This collection was both disappointing and unnecessarily disgusting. Not a great start to my reading year…

“What could be more normal than making people into clothes or furniture after they die?”

A lot of things…

As Life Ceremony happened to be one of my most anticipated 2022 releases, I was very happy to learn that my request for an arc was approved by its publisher. Sadly, it turns out that Life Ceremony was not the offbeat collection I was expecting it’d be. If you enjoyed Murata’s Convenience Store Woman but found Earthlings too grotesque, well, my advice is that you steer clear from her short stories. I loved the former and found the latter to be, if not enjoyable, certainly a striking read. Life Ceremony, on the other hand, feels like a rather forgettable collection of stories designed to disgust & shock its readers. Even the scenarios they explore are certainly weird, their weirdness was almost too predictable and samey. While the disturbing elements that made Earthlings into such a memorable read felt ‘earned’, and did not take precedence over the story’s characters & themes, here those elements feel obvious and as if they were the whole point of the story. As with her two novels, Murata’s short stories explore alienation, loneliness, humanity, and contemporary Japanese society. But, to be perfectly honest, Murata’s insights into these topics here feel banal and entirely derivative of her full length works.
Most of the stories in this collection are set in the near-future or in an alternate reality where certain characters, often the narrator, finds themselves questioning the social mores so readily accepted by others. Because of this they feel alienated from other people and don’t feel that they truly fit into their particular society. Most of the stories question the notion of right and wrong by challenging the characters ethical and moral ideologies (why do they really think that x is bad? is it because they are told that is what they should think? etc etc). In the first story for example our protagonist lives in a society that uses human skin to produce all sorts of objects. While this use of human skin is completely normalized now the protagonist remembers vaguely a time where this was not the case. Her partner, to everyone’s bewilderment, is openly against this practice and refuses to have items that are made of human skin. When his father dies and his skin repurposed, the partner reconsiders his stance. In another story, the main character has a sister who, in a similar fashion to a character from Earthlings, believes she is not a human. This causes others to bully and make fun of her. In the title story, Murata envisions a world where the deceased are made into food for the living in a ceremony of sorts. This ceremony apparently makes people really horny and they tend to have sex after consuming the ‘flesh’ of their loved one. People attach no shame to the act of sex and apparently it is perfectly normal to walk down a street and see pools of semen all over the pavement. Our main character initially claims that she is not keen on the practice but when a colleague she cares for dies suddenly she relishes the meal his relatives make him into. She comes across a man who says he’s gay and decides to give her his sperm. Amongst other things, I found myself wondering how gay people fit in in a society where you only have sex to procreate. I found this scenario particularly illogical. Not so much the eating of the deceased, I mean, endocannibalism was (is?) practised by certain communities, but the whole sex on the streets thing?! Uncomfortable much! Anyhow, we also have a story about a woman who observes other people and describes them as human beings, which kind of implies she is not one. She is particularly obsessed with things such as blood, bile, and other bodily fluids. At one point she observes someone she’s just had a meal with and this happens:

“Sanae quietly gripped the plastic bag in her hand, thinking of all the excrement filling Emiko’s body.”

Which, ugh, let me gouge my eyes out. I didn’t find this funny or shocking, just low-key gross. Gross is actually the perfect word to describe this collection. Alongside garish, vulgar, perverse, trite, and gratuitous. At times I felt that I was reading the writing of a teenager trying to be edgy and writing about edgy things like shit, sex, blood, and cannibalism. There were also lines such as “I felt so happy at the thought that I was among his innards” that just…why?! Then an orgasm is described as “it’s kind of like your body becomes innocent, like a child”…which. Yeah. Something about that does not sit right with me.
Contrary to what one might believe reading this review, I don’t mind gore, body horror, or works that are fascinated with what is abject. I recently watched and was blown away by Titane which definitely delivers on the body horror and the body is abject front. But this collection prioritizes these aspects in an ineffective way. They were far from subversive, and in fact, I found it predictable how almost every story features a society where something we consider taboo has been normalized.
While I was deeply dissatisfied by this collection, and I will certainly be avoiding her short-form work from now on, I do consider Murata to be a remarkable storyteller (even if this collection was, in my opinion of course, a dud). If you are interested in reading this and you are not put-off my intentionally & ott gross content, well, go for it.

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Earthlings by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The person who had given birth to me said I was a dead loss, so I decided it really must be true.”

A few days before reading Earthlings I read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and I really loved its humour and eccentric narrator. So, perhaps I approached Earthlings with the wrong expectations. Or maybe I was fooled by its cute cover (I mean, just look at that hedgehog!). Fact is, Earthlings is an altogether different beast to Murata’s previous novel. I can say, without the shadow of a doubt, that Earthlings is the most bizarre novel that I have read (and I’ve read a fair amount of books).
If you thought Convenience Store Woman was weird, well, be prepared as Earthlings is on an altogether different level of weird. Narrated by Natsuki, a young girl who is made to feel like an outsider within her own family and is regularly subjected to verbal and physical abuse from her mother and her sensitive older sister. Natsuki seems resilient enough though and finds reassurance in the belief that Piyyut, a plush toy hedgehog, is an alien from the planet Popinpobopia. Natsuki is eager to help Piyyut on his quest, and reveals only his true identity to her cousin Yuu who in turn tells her that he’s an extraterrestrial. Both of them live in difficult households and are made to feel like burdens. Their bond strengthens, so much so that they begin to call each other ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’, keeping their relationship a secret from the rest of the family. Sadly, the two are only able to meet up in the summer during their visits to their grandparents (who have a house in the mountains of Nagano).

“With my eyes closed, drifting in space, it felt as though the spaceship from Planet Popinpobopia really was close by. I was immersed in my love for Yuu and my magical powers. As long as I was here in this space, I was safe and nobody could destroy our happiness.”

Natsuki’s school life takes a turn for the worst when an ‘attractive’ young teacher begins to make sexual advances which will escalate to abuse. These horrific encounters will plague Natsuki into adulthood, as she will find it impossible to form an intimate relationship with another man. Her memories of Nagano and Yuu do lighten her days. However, to keep her family at bay, she forces herself to obey the norms of society and marries…but her married life is far from conventional.
There are many explicit scenes in this books. Some of them were simply vile, and frankly gratuitous, while others were so outlandish as to be funny (in a fucked up sort of way). This novel has quite a few scenes that made me drop my kindle and wonder, out loud, “WTF did I just read?”. Here are some examples (readers’ discretion is advised): (view spoiler)

What started as a dark coming of age soon morphed into a nightmarish and feverish horror show.
The book delves into disturbing subjects in a surreal and occasionally abrupt sort of way. The horrible things that keep happening to Natsuki and her alienation (towards her family, society, reality) are mediated by her unnervingly enthusiastic tone. She’s perfunctory when noting what her parents and sister feels towards her and criticism of society’s fixation on reproduction have a spring to them:

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory.”

Similarly to Convenience Store Woman the narrative of Earthlings interrogates existing notions of normalcy as well as questioning what being a ‘useful member of society’ entails. While Convenience Store Woman was far from subtle, it allowed more room for interpretation, Earthlings, on the other hand, is far more obvious. Natsuki, and two other central characters, use the ‘Factory’ metaphor in most of their discussions concerning their society and lives. It was a bit on the nose for me.
The ending was baffling and made me wonder what the point of this novel was. Certain scenes were so ludicrous as to be amusing and Natsuki’s narration certainly held my attention but even so I wonder whether those really graphic scenes served a purpose other than ‘to shock’ the readers (I don’t think so). Murata’s treatment of emotional and sexual abuse is also rather questionable.
My advice is this: be weary of Earthlings.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Convenience Store Woman delights in its own absurdity. In spite of its slender size and its deceptively deadpan style, Sayaka Murata’s novel is surprisingly subversive.
Keiko Furukura’s clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird. Yet, in spite of these macabre instances, Keiko’s narration has this effervescent energy, this ceaseless optimism, enlivens the more depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling moments.

Keiko is a thirty-six-year old who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. While other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko has no desire to change (herself and her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by mimicking their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship).
We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally hate doing these kind of things (and I work as a customer assistant) Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity).

Through Keiko’s unique mind ordinary moments and conversations are tinged with surreality. Although she’s unerringly logical, a lot of her thoughts are frankly bizarre or plain outlandish. Even her most sober observations (on Japanese social and gender norms, notions of normalcy) are injected with a dose of peculiarity.
Through Keiko’s uninhibited narration, Murata emphasises the absurdities of our modern age (particularly about work culture, social conformism, the expectations society places on single women in their 30s, alienation).
Playful, funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is a deeply engrossing novel and Keiko’s slightly off-kilter reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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