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“Normal is a type of madness, isn’t it? I think it’s just that the only madness society allows is called normal,” writes Sayaka Murata in her short story collection “Life Ceremony.” With childlike naiveté and disorientingly flat prose that never passes judgment, Murata takes taboos to extremes to expose the ultimately arbitrary nature of societal norms. Without ever reaching a conclusive answer, she asks if and how those who see through society’s “temporary mirage of little lies” can retain their humanity and sense of self.
Sayaka Murata is a Japanese writer best known for her novel “Convenience Store Woman,” which deals with the pressure society puts on women regarding reproductive burdens and marriage. “Life Ceremony” is her first collection of short stories to be translated into English and extends this notion of societal pressure towards a general examination of norms.
In the titular story, grotesque “life ceremonies” are held as funerals at which the guests eat the deceased and participate in “inseminations” to create new life. Cannibalism, the reader learns, was taboo in the story’s society 30 years ago but is now widely accepted during life ceremonies, leading the protagonist to think, “Instinct doesn’t exist. Morals don’t exist. They were just fake sensibilities that came from a world that was constantly transforming.” In her view, norms are relative, a result of morally arbitrary factors like the time and place of a society.
Murata’s greatest strengths are her unapologetic, childlike questioning and wild imagination. She is not afraid of shocking the reader with topics like cannibalism but rather builds plausible societies around them that confuse the reader’s moral standpoints. Murata’s strange ideas are also what makes “Life Ceremony” an entertaining page-turner, and her paratactic, deadpan prose turns even the most disturbing horror stories into comedy.
The flat prose also conceals her judgment: Although her characters argue and discuss the question of norms, Murata’s voice never takes sides. She wants to create ambiguity and sensibility, not certainty. In contrast to the protagonist, another character in the story “Life Ceremony” calls the world a “brilliant mirage, a temporary illusion” that is simultaneously real: “All our little lies are gathered together and become a reality that you can see only now.” Although absolute norms may not exist, collective belief renders them tangible. Murata’s word choices — “mirage,” “illusion,” “lies” — asks the reader to challenge their notion of “reality.”
In “Life Ceremony,” the mirage falls apart when one sees through it. Murata is interested in what happens to those who do, those who refuse to conform. Some of her characters stay true to their beliefs and face ridicule and ostracization, some slowly conform or at least lose their grasp on right or wrong: “I just don’t know what to think anymore” and “maybe everyone’s right,” one thinks — thoughts the reader may also have throughout the collection.
Individuality and the need for belonging are constantly at odds in these stories. In “Eating the City,” a young woman named Rina lives in Tokyo while longing for her rural childhood surroundings which gave her access to fresh food. She starts foraging in Tokyo’s parks and eventually only eats food she has gathered in the city. Rina then slowly starts to manipulate her work colleague Yuki, persuading her to join her “alternative society” of foraging for wild food. Her psychoanalytic considerations are at once disturbing and insightful: “I had to avoid prematurely shocking her, paying deliberate respect to her perception based on her current understanding of common sense.” The concept of “common sense” — just like morals, values, and norms — here takes on Murata’s flavor of arbitrariness and relativity, posing the question: How many people have to believe in something to render it “common sense”?
In a masterful twist, Murata lets Rina subvert not only Yuki but also the reader. As Rina explains how she plans to convert Yuki, it slowly dawns on the careful reader that these tactics have been woven into Murata’s narrative from the beginning: Mentioning Rina’s homesickness as “the sort of comment anyone could empathize with” and later blending in her “feral sensations” to “slowly change that person.” In a direct quote, Rina tells Yuki her life story in exactly the same way as she introduced herself and her worldview to the reader at the beginning of the story.
Murata’s breaking of the fourth wall is almost a kind gesture, a disclosure of her own literary tactics that reveals how easy it is to manipulate others into accepting ideologies. Many of the stories in “Life Ceremony” are set in societies with norms that the reader may find repulsive and bizarre, yet the characters’ innocent belief in them subversively allays the reader’s alertness.
Rina’s behavior is also a characterization of humanity as social beings. We cannot be human without other humans, and it is “rational and convenient to blend into and be liked by a community,” as another character states elsewhere. Even a nonconformist like Rina longs for others to accept and join her alternate society. Rather than portraying this as a solution to the central dilemma of this collection, Rina’s cold and calculating manipulation adds another problematic dimension, a circular and ironic anti-solution.
“Life Ceremony” is a weirdly entertaining blend of horror, comedy, and dystopian fiction as well as social criticism bordering on philosophical inquiry. Murata understands that questions are more important — and more feasible — than answers. Her taste for tongue-in-cheek ambiguity and contradiction and her refusal of make-believe solutions are precisely why she can speak to the complexities of human existence, particularly those of our time.
—Staff writer Larissa G. Barth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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