“Murata cements her reputation as a writer preoccupied with the outcast and incongruous”
Sayaka Murata is best known for her 2016 Convenience Store Woman, a short, deadpan novel about a woman who finds refuge from convention in a job at a supermarket. Murata’s probing of the social contract has resonated. Originally published in Japanese, Convenience Store Woman sold two million copies worldwide and has been translated into twenty-three languages. Murata was named a Vogue ‘Woman of the Year’. And yet, such popular success couldn’t tempt her into safer territory. Her 2018 follow-up Earthlings was a disturbing story of abuse, cannibalism and aliens. With Life Ceremony, a collection of short stories stylishly translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Murata cements her reputation as a writer preoccupied with the outcast and incongruous.
The thirteen stories collected here offer surprises. But they do so within bounds which will be familiar to Murata’s readers. The characters confront and smash taboos – whether those of a society similar to our own (as in ‘Body Magic’, about burgeoning female sexuality), or those of a fantastical future. In the titular story, falling birth rates have led to a widespread preoccupation with ‘insemination’, and this is, for enigmatic reasons, tied to a new funeral rite called the ‘life ceremony’. Guests eat the deceased’s body and then couple off to have sex. The tale combines some of Murata’s key concerns – the absurdities of reproduction, and food as an index of cultural difference. It also leads to some enjoyably blunt humour: “He goes well with cashew nuts, doesn’t he? I never realized it when he was still alive.”
Similar ideas are explored, less successfully, elsewhere in the collection. ‘A Magnificent Spread’, about a couple who eat Huel-esque ‘Happy Future Food’, has a tendency to hit the reader over the head with its satirical blows. Some of Murata’s slighter stories are her best: ‘Lover on the Breeze’, involving a love-triangle between two students and a curtain (winningly narrated by the curtain), is moving. And ‘Poochie’, about two girls who keep a former businessman as a pet because they thought it would be ‘cute’, deftly satirises both corporate masculinity and the apparent innocence of girlhood in a mere six pages.
Murata and her UK publisher Granta have a history of inflating and exploding stereotypes about Japanese quirkiness. The cover of Earthlings features a beady toy hedgehog, and some knowingly pulpy copy (‘Natsuki isn’t like the other girls’). Readers were shocked at the gore and horror inside. Murata told the Guardian: “The people who know me through Convenience Store Woman are disappointed. But I was a cult writer before that success.” Indeed, the stories collected in Life Ceremony may remind readers of pioneering science-fiction writer Izumi Suzuki, also recently translated for the first time into English.
Murata wrote, in fact, nine novels before Convenience Store Woman. It is to be hoped that this earlier industry also becomes available in translation – perhaps giving her anglophone readers a fuller appreciation of her range and ambition. In the meantime, Life Ceremony is a worthy teaser and, like Murata’s meals, queasily moreish.
Words: Eve Hawksworth