A Review of Sayaka Murata’s “Earthlings”
The Unreliable Narrator
I recently took some time away from my book reviewing duties here just to read novels that I wouldn’t have ordinarily read without having to think about them too much, as I would have if I were reviewing them. This allowed me to catch up on recent some recent-ish books from Jonathan Carroll — a surrealist author who has a popular following here on Medium. The thing with Carroll — aside from the fact that his novels range from good to wretchedly awful — is the fact that the characters who narrate his books can’t be trusted. They are either unreliable narrators, or the silly surrealist worlds they find themselves within are real. Thus, you generally wind up just not believing them. Well, the idea of the unreliable narrator comes up in Sayaka Murata’s latest novel Earthlings, because it features a main character so outlandish that you’re not even sure if she’s real — though the things that happen to her are all too real.
The story centers, at least at first, on a then 11-year-old Japanese girl named Natsuki who is out of sorts with the rest of her family. Her best friend is a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut, who talks to her, and she believes that she — along with a male cousin roughly the same age — are inhabitants of the planet Popinpobopia and are visiting the Earth as aliens. One summer on vacation at a relative’s cottage where the entire family has gathered, Natsuki and the cousin Yuu have sex — which alienates the two of them from the rest of the family. Meanwhile, at cram school, Natsuki is being sexually abused by her teacher. Later on, that teacher is murdered. Who did it? And when Natsuki is all grown up and married to someone she doesn’t have sex with, will she reconnect with her cousin and take things from where they left off?
As you can tell, Earthlings is a weird, almost surrealist novel. It might be a case of being weird for the sake of being weird, as though Murata had nowhere to go after writing the enchanting Convenience Story Woman, which was also about outsiders — but was slightly shorter and more mired in the realistic. To be honest, I’m not sure what to think of Earthlings other than it is a sinister and disgusting read. The ending is way out in left-field and makes Margaret Atwood’s climax to her ’70s experimental novel Surfacing seem almost tame in comparison. There’s a lot of talk expended about Earth being home to a Factory that is only concerned about producing babies. There’s also the chilling realization that the reader gets that nobody believes Natsuki’s tales of abuse. These two things are interconnected, it seems. Natsuki can’t seem to get over her past, or so her relatives think. However, it appears that, at times, Natsuki’s abuse gets glossed over by others — giving credence to the idea that, in some way, she probably deserved it. And she should just get on with making babies.
Ultimately, this aspect of the novel is hard to believe. If your daughter came to you as a mother and told you that she was being forced to give her teacher blow jobs after school, would you not believe her? In this story, the “complaint” gets brushed aside because Natsuki is alien to her own family and her mother doesn’t appear to be very loving towards her — especially after the incident with her cousin. However, it’s also a hard fact to swallow. When friends start to tell Natsuki that she needed to suck up the abuse because her teacher was so handsome, you might get the impression that Murata is a misanthrope to her characters (or is a misanthrope in general). Nobody deserves to go through what Natsuki has gone through, which is sex without consent. However, I have to wonder if something is being lost in translation and this is Murata just skewering Japanese fetishes for youth culture.
As you can probably imagine, Earthlings is not an easy book to sit through. It is dark — pitch black, in fact — and its plot is all over the place. You think that the family is going to stay for a vacation in the Japanese mountainside at the start of the book, only to have them duck out because another daughter is feigning sickness at being in the mountain air. (The sex with the cousin incident occurs the following year.) This destination winds up being circular in the novel, true, but Earthlings is all over the place. One minute Natsuki is 11, the next minute she is in her mid-30s. One minute the characters are in the city, the next they’ve gone to the country for no real reason other than revisiting a scene of the crime between two cousins.
I’d generally liked Convenience Store Woman, so it is with some sadness and shame to say that Earthlings completely falls apart as a novel. The characters are so weird as to be unlikeable, and bad things repeatedly happen to them — while we may not like them, that doesn’t mean we should be given a reason to not care about them. At least, there’s the sense that Murata isn’t playing this all for laughs, though some of this — Natsuki’s browbeating by his father, for instance — is supposed to come across as being awkwardly hilarious. At the end of the day, Murata has written a middling novel.
Hopefully, that doesn’t mean greatness will elude her once again. Convenience Store Woman was wonderful, at least what I can remember of it was. One can only hope that if Murata has another book in her, that it will aspire to those heights. Earthlings isn’t much longer than her earlier work — at some 240 pages, it can be consumed in a single sitting — but one gets the sense she might have bitten off more than she could chew with the complex and shocking plot. It’s too bad. Earthlings misses the mark. Sex with your relatives or consensual sex just isn’t funny or weird. It’s terrible. It’s just too bad that Murata had to go there in the first place — making her something of an unreliable author right now.
Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings was published by Grove/Atlantic on October 6, 2020.
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You may also be interested in the following review: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman.
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