I’m glad I held off on writing my response for a few days: mostly because, right after finishing the book, I had no idea how to feel. I reread the last couple pages a few times to make sure I understood the ending “correctly.” (Just vocabulary-wise; I still don’t know if I fully “get it.”) But also, as always, reading everyone’s responses helped me to shape my thoughts.
I find myself understanding both sides of the debate. Looking back, I do agree with @NicoleRauch that the parts Murata wrote about Natsuki’s childhood were so good and compelling; part of me wishes we spent the majority of time with child Natsuki, maybe watching her slowly grow up. On the other hand, I have no idea what that book would look like: would doing so just lead to more “trauma porn,” to bring back the idea of the trauma plot from Week 5? Maybe. Should there have been a smaller time skip in between? That might’ve worked, but then again I do think the look back at her high school and college experiences that Murata wrote are enough for us to get the gist of why she ended up as the adult she is. Ultimately, though jarring at first, I didn’t mind time skip. There were plenty of moments after that point that made me want to continue reading.
The quote from Murata that @maskedkoala posted also helped solidify one of my thoughts on the book: it’s a story about being pushed to extremes. The people in Natsuki’s life don’t really live in any kind of middle ground: as a child, she’s prepared for her mother and sister to throw vitriol toward her, for her teacher to do something creepy toward her; her father’s not much of a presence, though of course after the nighttime excursion with Yuu, he also goes to extremes to “control” her behavior. Growing up, she tries confiding in those she’s close with who are outside of her childhood circle, and is met with abandonment and dismissiveness (after being given a taste of short-lived sympathy). As an adult, she’s pushed by people who all want something for her that she isn’t remotely interested in: marriage and children. She tries to please them by getting married, though on her own terms, and learns that isn’t enough. Thirty-two years of doing things “wrong” and not being enough for the people you’re closest with is a lot to deal with. Yuu tries to be a middle-ground character, but he ultimately transforms into an extreme type of character, proposing they all take things back to basics and think “logically.” Her husband is completely on board with this, and Natsuki goes along with it, too. Add to that the looming pressure of her previous environment coming from her sister, and the extreme elements in Natsuki’s life only seem to increase.
There are a few moments, though, that hint that Natsuki’s not quite the same: when she wants to continue talking about the conditions for having sex in the bath; when she confesses to herself that she might be in love; and when, right before they cut up Igasaki’s parents for food, she thinks that there might be a bit of earthling left in her. I think these are the moments when she’s most honest with herself (along with when she finally confesses to murdering her teacher). And yet, she doesn’t quite voice them: she remains quiet during the bath scene for the most part, not pushing her topic too far. She never tells Yuu or her husband her feelings of both attraction and fear. In this new, extreme environment, she once again pushes her own feelings aside and goes along with the majority, who both happen to be male. Granted, it’s these extreme circumstances that lead to her mouth and ear being “fixed,” but why is that? Does eating Igasaki’s parents bring a kind of closure for her? Does engaging in a kind of sexual tasting of the two men allow her to release some of her complicated feelings surround sex? I’m not sure.
The ending is the most confusing part of the whole story. How much is a dream and how much is real? @omk3 had a great interpretation of the scene, and the more I thought about it, the more I on board with it I became. (I think the swollen bellies are because they’ve for the most part been starving, at least compared to how they ate before their training. It reminded me of photos I’ve seen of starving children, where you can see their ribs showing while they still have bellies.) I think the ending is Natsuki finally breaking down mentally. In the same room, she’s met with the extremes of her former life (mother and sister are present) and the extremes of the life she’s been living. To be frank, though her ear and mouth were “fixed,” I wouldn’t be surprised if that scene alludes to the idea that her eyes are now “broken,” much like when she was looking for the “witch” as a child. Do Yuu and her husband actually think they’re pregnant, or is that in Natsuki’s head? It’s hard to say. I think the final sentence of them leaving the house and going into the forest with their “rescuers” voices echoing behind them can have two meanings: the first is that those three have completely left “earthling” life behind them (for how on earth could they be accepted back into society with all they’ve done), and the second is that “earthling” life is still following after them (the echoes of the voices shake the forest and spread throughout it).
I think I did end up enjoying the novel in the end. I don’t know where it sits for me in terms of Murata’s other work, but I think it was an interesting exploration of how people can alienate others to the point of mental anguish.
There was an article about Murata that was posted a while ago in the Sayaka Murata Book Club, but it had spoilers for this book in it, so I never read it. I’ll link it below (though it has spoilers for コンビニ人間」); however, there’s a quote from it I’d like to share:
Murata says she starts with her characters and doesn’t know the ending of her novels until she writes them. That might explain why Earthlings turns from whimsy to surrealist horror. Its final act puts the three main characters – Natsuki, her first love, Yuu, and her fake husband - together in the mountainous Nagano countryside where their rejection of the “factory” becomes complete. Convinced they are aliens at war with the factory’s emissaries, they resort to murder and cannibalism. Munching on an “Earthling”, Natsuki finally recovers the sense of taste she lost as a result of the abuse. “I felt as though I was eating for the first time in twenty-three years.” Murata says she didn’t set out to write a shocking book but her subconscious invaded the pages. “The people who know me through Convenience Store Woman are disappointed. But I was a cult writer before that success. People are saying the old Murata has returned.”
The full article can be read here.
Thank you so much to everyone who participated and posted their thoughts/interpretations. Though I enjoy reading, my favorite part is being able to discuss the things I read, and you all made this a fruitful experience (it’s not a shock that the only books I’ve fully finished so far are book club books). I hope to participate in another book club with you all soon!