By Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
244 pages. coarse press. $25.
Japanese author Sayaka Murata is best known for ‘Convenience Store Woman’, her 2016 novel about Keiko, a friendless woman who, in order to suppress her dark impulses, devotes her life to a job as an anonymous cashier in a Tokyo food market.
Murata’s prose is smeared, as clear as cellophane, and has the neatness of a bento box. She is not the most subtle writer. You don’t read her because of her extra fine perception device. You read her because when her stuff works, it’s chilly and transgressive at the same time.
Her new book is ‘Life Ceremony’, a collection of stories. The characters are middle-class women who, like Keiko, live in and around Tokyo. They grew up in the suburbs; they live in small apartments in the city; their career is unremarkable.
Murata pushes the ordinary until it extrudes into unusual shapes. The title story is about Maho, a young woman with a boring business job. She is invited to a ‘life ceremony’ for an elderly manager who has passed away. Life ceremonies, we learn, involve eating the deceased in honor of them.
James Beard said he could probably be a cannibal if he had enough dragon. Here the meat is stewed and served hotpot style. “You get better soup stock from men,” one notes.
Japanese society is divided by this new practice. Murata is interested in how disgust drives ethics, why some things repel us and others don’t. Life ceremonies believe that they are just a happy way to disperse the energy of the deceased.
The story gets eerily funny, in a “Fargo” way. Sometime after the manager’s ceremony, Maho is asked to help dismember and prepare the body of another employee. The dead man’s mother thinks Maho was his good friend. Maho doesn’t have the heart to tell her that she was just his smoking partner.
As she debones meat, she thinks, “I remembered his strong, furry arms lifting his beer glass.” It’s a nice touch when she takes leftovers home in Tupperware.
This story also addresses fears of population loss. Life ceremonies also include “inseminations”; couples become partners and go out. I remain confused about how these inseminations differ from sex, but the story ends when a friendly stranger hands Maho a vial in which he has put a deposit.
Murata taps into a similar vein in a story titled “A First-Rate Material.” It is set in a Japan where it has become chic to wear sweaters made of human hair, as well as earrings and wedding rings made of teeth. Human shin-bone chairs are coveted, as are ribcage tables and bookshelves that use shoulder blades as dividers.
A young woman, Nana, prepares to marry a young man who hates these things. The clever conceit of the story is to make him the moral outlier. Nana comments, “He was such a gentle person and I still couldn’t believe he could be so harsh and cruel to tell us to throw the whole body away, even though so much could be reused.”
Another story is about two elderly women, friends who have lived together for a long time and have raised children. One is wildly promiscuous; the other has never had sex. Murata likes to explore the intersections where extremes meet.
A few of the stories are quite long; others are vignettes. A handful is banal. “Lover on the Breeze” is told from the perspective of a window curtain in a high school girl’s bedroom. Even in her best stories, Murata has a weakness for propositions.
This is especially true in the pleasantly wacky story “A Magnificent Spread”. It’s about a husband and wife who eat bizarre, freeze-dried health food because it’s popular with celebrities. The woman’s sister, Kumi, thinks she is a reincarnated warrior from a magical city, and claims that she only cooks and eats the food. (Dandelion flowers cooked in orange juice is a dish.)
Kumi’s future in-laws like to eat stewed insects: caterpillars, larvae, grasshoppers. This group sits together at the table miserable until they realize, as if this is an after-school special, “we don’t have to eat from the same pot to understand each other.”
The best story in “Life Ceremony” is the most straightforward. It’s called ‘Body Magic’ and it’s about teenage girls and their bodies and crushes and decency. The narrator, Ruri, doesn’t consider herself a prude, but she is shocked at how sophisticated her friend Shiho is.
Shiho had sex in the summer before her freshman year of high school. “My first thought,” Ruri thinks, “was that she must have been taken advantage of by some pervert with a Lolita fetish.” But when Shiho starts talking, Ruri becomes captivated by her articulate and organic sense of fun and control.
“Wanting to get into someone’s skin,” Ruri thinks after Shiho uses the phrase. “Something like this had never occurred to me. The other girls didn’t look like they were kissing guys out of a desire of their own. It was more like they wanted to prove to themselves that after being subjected to a kiss, they were all aware and mature.
Murata’s prose, in this translation from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is generally so cool you could chill a bottle of wine in it. “Body Magic” is warmer and more subtle. I wondered if she really needs the big conceits.