It has been a while since I suggested a Japanese fiction book here. My first book choice of 2021 is a double combination. I am recommending two Japanese fiction books by author Murata Sayaka – Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings. In my opinion both of these would make for some very interesting film adaptations. Here are some other reasons why I’m recommending these books:
Defiyingly at odds.
First, the lead characters in both books are young, introspective Japanese women. They puzzle at the conventions of the world they live in. These young women are aware of the gap between their values and those of others. This is a gap they need to bridge if they are to survive. Keiko bridges it by adhering to the structured routine of the small convenience store, and mimicking emotions as needed. Natsuki by adhering to an imaginary narrative of alien origin. Keiko’s distance remains somewhat manageable. Natsuki will reach full-on psychological dissociation.
It isn’t long in the books before the reader feels these characters are not that “odd”. Their value gaps are set by the dominant traits of the societies they inhabit. Murata’s worlds are ruled by extroversion. There are strict expectations in them. Expectations about what appropriate”relationship building” behaviour is. Expectations about what “individual productivity” looks like. Dominant-trait characters cope with frustrations by preying on the meek around them. The more you read on, the more one sees the lead characters as just humans trying to survive. These humans try to cope with a world that offers little inclusiveness. Moreover, if we replace Murata’s trait of “difference” chosen in these books with another, the experiences quickly become all too close for comfort.
As I finished Earthlings, Mishima Yukio’s character Honda – from the “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy – came to mind. Quoted loosely from memory, his take went that history is something that sweeps us up and simply goes through each individual. If you’re unlucky to be off the current, the odds of surviving unscathed are very low. Both of Murata’s books are rooted in a contemporary urban experience in Japan. Yet, there is far less here exclusive to Japan than we might think. Humans everywhere have built hard seated biases over thousands of years. Similarly, those biases continuously prove difficult to root out. And yet, the optimist in me hopes that Murata Sayaka will be able to write of happier “odd” women within her lifetime. Then again, what constitutes truly inclusive happiness on this universe might be a book topic all of its own.
I loved the wrap-around design for the hardcover edition of Earthlings. I felt someone knew the reader wasn’t going to put this book down until late at night. Below a link to the publisher’s pages for the books:
Convenience Store Woman by Murata Sayaka at Grove Atlantic, ISBN: 9780802129628
Earthlings by Murata Sayaka at Granta, ISBN: 9781783785674
A few short stories available in English online on this Granta homepage: https://granta.com/contributor/sayaka-murata/