I have a lot of thoughts on this portion, and can definitely see why people have read ahead - though my reading speed is slow enough that I’m struggling to catch up, so I likely won’t be doing that, ha. I have a lot to say, so buckle in…
On Natsuki's escapism
The line that really broke me is:
Just the way that it’s as if her entire system is shutting down. And then the repeated response. I was lucky enough that my eReader page division keep the paragraph all on one page, so when I reached it, I was immediately struck by how the all hiragana section just made it stick out even more, just visually.
When she talks to Yuu, I was struck by how she says that she doesn’t know whether the story is true or not. That seems to indicate to me that previously she somewhat knew that her and Yuu’s stories were make believe, even if she took it quite seriously, but now that line is becoming blurred.
What I also found interesting is that she is unable to dissacosiate when she protests about the change of Obon plans. It’s almost like precisely because she was active in this situation, she felt the pain even more. This makes me particularly sad about what she might take away from that lesson.
Certainly Igasaki seems to count on this passivity based on the way he preys on her - he also takes advantage of the fact that she wants to protect her friends, which makes me hate him even more. The entire set up made me feel that Natsuki is probably not the first little girl he’s preyed on. It’s just so calculated.
On the mother
Wow, what a horrific mother. My heart was broken when she didn’t take Natsuki claims seriously. I was especially struck by how she completely missed Natsuki mention of the sanitary napkin and instead zeroed in on the fixing of posture. I mean both incidents were bad, but the second is so wierd and creepy, that the fact the Mom completely ignores it is pretty damning. It’s as if she is so completely convinced her child is a failure, that anything that seems to confirm her criticisms must be true. My heart breaks for the Natsuki. This is even worse than if she had said nothing at all.
On darkness and trauma in fiction
The final discussion question made me think of a New Yorker article I read recently called “The Case Against the Trauma Plot”. In it, the author argues that the trauma plot flattens characters so that they are only defined by their past. She also argues that it ignores the diverse ways that people manage and process trauma. It’s not all flashback and panic attacks: many people come out of pretty traumatic childhoods without the ptsd symptoms that fiction gives us. In addition, if we believe that trauma is something you can never escape, then we risk fetishizing it and foreclosing growth.
Similarly, I got recommended by the algorithm this morning this (spoiler filled) Vox Article on the writing of Hanya Yanagihara (who is also mentioned in the New Yorker article). In this one the author argues that the trauma plots often portray suffering as somehow beautiful, and diminishing the value of being safe and happy.
I haven’t actually read any of Yanigara’s books, so I can’t really assess whether I agree wih the article’s damning assessment, but I have been thinking about how both of these articles apply to 地球星人. First, I definitely don’t think that Murata sees suffering as beautiful. The magical elements are a coping strategy: when she lies to Yuu about the alien coming to her room, it’s because she wants to desperately get away. The abuse is very much meant to make us feel uncomfortable.
Also, this is not about a mysterious back story. We are experiencing the trauma in real time, and so far, the narrative does point to the future, not the past. Without having finished the book it’s hard to know how whether these incidents will continue to define her: but I hope that Natsuki will grow up to be more than her abuse. I think the relationship with Yuu is helping with that. We see her capacity to love, her vivid imagination. I want these threads to continue to develop. I don’t think trauma is being used as a lazy way to define her as a character.
And I do think there is value in fiction depicting traumatic experiences, including child abuse, because it does happen, and fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have to be able to grapple with things that are otherwise unfathomable. But I agree that there is a fine line between trauma porn which flattens all of humanity into our pain, and that which acknowledges trauma and leaves room for the diversity of ways we cope, or any room for joy.
That indeed is where Murata succeeded so strongly with コンビニ人間: yes, it’s a story about a woman struggling with the judgments of society, but it is also about reclaiming the joy of working at the convenience store. She realizes that no one can tell her what should make her happy, and makes the reader realize that they too have been complicit in wanting her to "grow’ when in reality she was happiest at the convenience store.
So far, I don’t think Murata has crossed into the land of voyeurism, in part because of how uncomfortable those sections of abuse feel, and how magical the first chapter felt. Her prose, while explicit does not linger unnecessary long on the abuse. It’s horrific, but I don’t think gratuitous. The shortness of the book might also be a boon - for what it’s worth, Yanigara’s book is apparently over 700 pages, so I can understand that people might find that more trying.
But I’ll see how I feel later! It’s definitely an interesting question, and I don’t think there a clear answer on where the line is always.