Love and the Alien

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Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, deserves more than the brief, unintentionally flippant review I initially gave it on Goodreads.

I read it a little over a year ago and its ending still haunts me in a very welcomed way.

The end of Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings is how I imagined the end of part 2 of American Horror Story’s Double Feature, “Death Valley.” I  can still picture it so clearly. The series’ abductees huddled together – bald, naked, soiled, and bug-eyed – shivering in a dim-dark room that’s suddenly ripped asunder by a bolt of light as a distracted Sarah Paulson throws open the door, pauses, and then screams, horrified by the alien cabal.

There is an interesting review of Earthling in the blog, Elephant, titled, “Broken Bodies: Unravelling Alienation and Intimacy in Sayaka Murat’s Earthlings,” that discusses alienation from the perspective of falling and having control of your body wrenched from you. The author equates this to Natsuki, Earthlings’ protagonist, having no voice in determining what she wishes to pursue as a girl, how she wishes to dress, and the trauma of having others take control of her body.

Sally Breen’s review in the Sydney Review of Books is not as interesting but is well written and presents a more accessible assessment of Earthlings, without the intricacies of body politics. However, Breen does criticize the author picture the Guardian used in their story about Murata. Based on Breen’s objection, it suggests that Guardian took control of Murata’s “body” when it decided to us a photo that perpetuates the “stereotype of a demure Japanese woman, even though she’s known for work which openly satirises patriarchal systems and attitudes, particularly the reduction of people to ‘nesters’ and breeders.”

In Earthlings, Natsuki and her cousin, Yuu, are “married.” It’s normally a throwaway promise made between young children as a form of play that mirrors what they understand of adulthood. However, Murarta turns this harmless bit of make-believe into something unseemly and real through Natsuki’s rationalizations and her “childhood husband” Yuu and her husband Tomoya’s capitulations.

Tomoya is a man Natsuki meets on an online dating site several years after a childhood incident between her and Yuu. Tomoya shares Natsuki’s dissatisfaction with society’s expectations of them. He readily accepts Natsuki’s hypothesis that they are aliens stationed on earth to observe the “factory,” the label they’ve given the earthling grind of school, work, marriage, birthing, and family.

It can be said that Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings is not so much about “earthlings” as it is about “aliens” and the founding of their nation. To cope with stress of her inability to conform with her peers or happily abide by the social rules her mother and other authority figures enforce, Natsuki Sasamoto’s has created an entire alternate, alien society. She decides that she is an observer from planet Popinpobopia assigned to study the human race. She submits her reports through her alien companion, Piyyut (a stuffed hedgehog toy).

Earthlings’ is very much a story of how the right circumstances can draw the wrong conclusions. Enabled by Yuu and Tomoya, Natsuki and her “husbands” deconstruct earthling rules, recycling the pieces to build a satellite alien refuge in the Sasamoto family’s remote mountain cabin. There’s a dark and humorous scene of Tomoyo defending his desire to have sex with his vegetative grandfather to Yuu. In fact, many of the new alien rules that the trio establish are based on similar simplistic and comical rationalizations.

Earthlings is the first contact (pun intended) with Sayaka Murata’s storytelling. The translation presents her storytelling with a childlike matter-of-factness that is clear, concise, but complex through its many possible interpretations. Also, despite its dark humor and the weight of its circumstances (rape and incest) Tomoyo is a source of comic relief that balances the story so it doesn’t become a grinding exercise in domestic horror.

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