A Review of Sayaka Murata’s “Life Ceremony”
Japanese cult author Sayaka Murata is hitting .500 in terms of the quality of her previous two books when combined. Her debut, Convenience Store Woman, was a delightful — if short — account of a woman obviously on the autism spectrum trying to enjoy life in the traditional hierarchy of Japan. Murata’s follow-up, Earthlings, essentially squandered all the goodwill she had generated with the previous novel, though. It was weird and grotesque, with the themes of incest, sexual assault, and cannibalism on the menu. In preparation for her next novel-length move, Murata is now publishing a short story collection called Life Ceremony that veers more towards Earthlings than it does Convenience Store Woman. That said, it generally isn’t too bad — but it does maintain Murata’s score of hitting only .500 baseball. The reason is that Life Ceremony can be sometimes weird for weirdness’s sake, and some of the stories mine a concept but then does absolutely nothing with that concept. And that’s when it’s not making you retch.
The gamut of stories in Life Ceremony run from a piece narrated from the perspective of a child’s bedroom curtain to a tale where a pair of schoolgirls keep a middle-aged man hidden in a shed as something of a pet. The title story might be the most revolting, though: it concerns “life ceremonies” that have started to occur in society in place of funerals, where the mourners eat the remnants of the dead in miso soup. If that didn’t make you lose your breakfast, lunch, and supper all at once, the point of these ceremonies is to — upon eating the dead — procreate! (Except it’s not called “having sex” but “semination” instead.) A couple of stories here are about the joys of eating dandelions, which just as much grosses me out as eating human remains does. And then there’s a story where a couple has an argument about wearing clothing made from human hair, and there are a few stories that seem to be set in the universe of Earthlings as well. It’s a strange and varied collection that holds just about nothing in common with Convenience Store Woman, except perhaps in places here and there.
I do sort of know where Murata is going with this collection of grotesqueries. Take the story of the girls holding a middle-aged man captive: it’s a story that flips the Japanese fetish with sexualizing young girls on its proverbial head, even if that’s the only point of the thing and there’s no further story here than that. Other stories that deal with incest try to remove the taboo if it’s done with consent between young children who are only experimenting with their sexuality. And Murata seems to believe in cultural relativism as a philosophical and moral guide: one story is about the differences in food that a family eats, showing that people from different regions or cultures experience things differently. Thus, I understand all of this — I think. However, that didn’t stop me from being weirded and creeped out by a few of these stories. A lot of Life Ceremony seems predicated on shock value and how much revolution can be inspired upon the reader. I must wonder: what happened to the nice Japanese lady who wrote the charming Convenience Store Woman? Where did she go? Because it’s as though Earthlings and large swaths of Life Ceremony have been written by an entirely different human being.
That all said, there is still material in this collection that can be enjoyed, even if it gets a bit on the outré side. The story of the curtain is somewhat touching, even if it really seems to be more of a piece about lost innocence when a child grows up. And even though the human hair story is kind of gross, it is interesting and is far less invasively revolting than “Life Ceremony,” the novelette, is. So, there are bits and pieces that readers may enjoy in this collection, and I will say that it might be not a bad place to start reading Murata’s work because it will give you an indication if you want more of the same (Earthlings) or if you want to try something a little more lightweight (Convenience Store Woman). Not that Life Ceremony doesn’t have its share of the frothy: the final story in this collection is about a woman with five or six seemingly different “personalities” (but isn’t mentally ill). However, the bulk of this collection runs from the weird to the very weird to the “I don’t know what this story is going on about” variety.
At the end of the day, Life Ceremony does prove one thing: that Murata does have a unique voice, even if it is quite bizarre probably even by Japanese standards. This is a book by a fearless writer. After all, what else can be said about someone who makes incest seem palpable under certain circumstances? Still, I will imagine that Life Ceremony will likely be off-putting to those who have not joined the cult of Murata. Too many of these stories are just too plain gross to be profound. Lengthy descriptions of what human meat tastes like are not for me! (And I’m known for my weird fiction writing of yore.) Still, there’s enough evidence of talent when Murata manages to restrain herself and reel in some of her more outlandish quirks. Again, she’s a voice — even if it’s one that frequently enjoys the garish and out-of-tune. To that end, Life Ceremony is a mixed bag. And by mixed bag, I mean you should have a barf bag by your side when you encounter this. All in all, Murata is truly batting .500 here — it’s somewhere in between the poles of her two previous works. The good news is that it isn’t quite as obnoxiously dark as Earthlings was. Where she goes from here is anyone’s guess, though, because, man, some of this kind of writing may just cause you to hurl in your mouth just a little bit.
Sayaka Murata’s Life Ceremony will be published by Grove Press on July 5, 2022.
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