I Married a Stranger to Be Left Alone
An excerpt from the novel "Earthlings" by Sayaka Murata, recommended by Ginny Tapley Takemori
INTRODUCTION BY GINNY TAPLEY TAKEMORI
Sayaka Murata’s first novel to be published in English was Convenience Store Woman, in 2018, which went on to become a bestseller and has now been published in around 37 countries worldwide. Some people wrote about how hilarious it was, others noted its darkness. I think my favorite quote was Dwight Garner’s in the New York Times: “One begins to spin through one’s Rolodex of loners, and wonder if Keiko is less like Dickens’s Miss Havisham and less like Babette in Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast’ and perhaps more like Norman Bates, without the mommy issues.” Earthlings, however, takes this darkness to another level and propels the reader way out of their comfort zone.
The first part is told by Natsuki at age 11. The first time I read Earthlings in Japanese, I was drawn in by the nostalgic atmosphere of the house in the mountains where Natsuki’s extended family come together every summer for the Obon festival. The darkness is already evident from the very first line, however, and it doesn’t take long for us to realize how very dysfunctional her situation is. Everything that happens comes to us through Natsuki’s viewpoint, and her attempts to rationalize and cope and remain positive make it that much more heartbreaking. I couldn’t put it down, compelled to keep reading.
Part 2 (a chapter of which is excerpted here) sees Natsuki now grown up and married, but all is not as it seems, and the story gets progressively wilder. Near the end, with only a few pages left, I was wondering how on earth it was going to end, with no idea whatsoever where Murata was taking us. As I read those last few pages, I felt my head explode. Granta made a promotion video of influencers filming themselves as they read the ending: I immensely enjoyed watching their expressions as they sputtered, “What….have I just read?” I understood exactly how they felt.
I knew immediately that I wanted to translate this novel. It is violent and disturbing, but it also has magic and (very black) humor. Some of the themes readers saw in Convenience Store Woman are further explored. Seen through Natsuki’s eyes we cannot help feeling the horror for ourselves, and realizing just how dystopian society can be. Even as Natsuki herself becomes more and more monstrous, Murata refuses to judge her; we experience the unfolding events from Natsuki’s perspective. The result is that we are forced to question what it is that makes us human, and also to recognize how society creates sociopaths and monsters.
As Stephenie Harrison says in her BookPage review, “for adventurous readers who revel in a book that defies expectations and dares to be outlandishly different, Earthlings is a mind- and soul-expanding countercultural battle cry that is utterly one of a kind.” Prepare to be blown into outer space!
– Ginny Tapley Takemori
I Married a Stranger to Be Left Alone
An excerpt from Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
I felt something on my ankle and looked down thinking it was a bug, but it was just the laces of my sneaker. I couldn’t be bothered to put down the supermarket bags I was carrying in each hand, so I decided to leave my laces undone and started walking again.
I was on my way back to the condo by the station where I now lived, about a fifteen-minute walk from the house I had grown up in.
I got married three years ago, at the age of thirty-one. My parents had urged me and my husband to rent a condo by the station in Mirai New Town in Chiba where I was born and raised. I had resisted at first since it was inconvenient for commuting into Tokyo and also because I found the lack of change in my life depressing, but now I felt it was convenient in its own way, being located close to the station and supermarket.
I should have bought the mineral water online as I usually did I thought, adjusting my grip on the shopping bags as the plastic handles cut into my palms. I’d seen it was on sale and had picked up two bottles.
The breeze blowing in from the balcony that morning felt chilly so I’d worn a light trench coat, but now I was too hot. The sun was still strong even though it was already almost October.
When I finally got home, my husband was out on the balcony tending to the plants. He peeked his head around the curtain to greet me.
“This one with a thick trunk has gotten pretty dried out.”
“You don’t need to water that one until spring. I read in a book that when it gets cold, it sheds all its leaves and hibernates, and when spring comes around it puts out new shoots.”
“Oh, really? Plants are incredible!”
My husband was a meek guy and easily impressed. He gently touched the trunk with a respectful look, as though he were standing before the bronze statue of some great personage.
“You wouldn’t believe what plants are like in Akishina! They’re so rampant there you can easily be swallowed up by them. You have to constantly tend to the house and vegetable gardens or they’ll immediately succumb to the force of nature.”
“I never get tired of hearing about Akishina. It just sounds so amazing! So different from Tokyo. Your stories of your grandparents’ house are like a dream. Someday I really want to go there.”
He loved it when I talked about Akishina. He came in from the balcony.
“Tell me more!” he said happily. “Oh, I know. Tell me about the silkworm room again.”
“Well, I only ever heard about it from my uncle. I never actually saw it myself. But the silkworms were started off in an upstairs room. The room isn’t all that big, but according to what my uncle told me, the worms were kept in rows of bamboo baskets in there and fed mulberry leaves. They grew really fast, so before long the whole house would be full of them.”
He listened entranced, as though I was telling him a fairy tale. I always ended up feeling as though the stories I’d heard from my uncle were actually my own experiences, and I would get carried away talking about them.
“Oh, and in spring, they would always buy five chicks to raise for eggs, and after two or three years they would wring their necks and eat them at Obon or New Year.”
“You must have eaten those chickens at Obon, right, Natsuki?”
“Maybe, but I don’t think they kept any chickens at the Akishina house when I was little.”
“Oh, it’s wonderful, like the gift of life itself! I’ve only ever seen meat wrapped up in packs in the supermarket. Tokyo’s awful. You can’t learn any of the things that are important to being human there.”
He seemed to have the intense longing for the countryside that was typical of city people. My family never mentioned Akishina, so when he listened so intently to me I felt soothed by nostalgia.
As we chatted, I put a pan of water on to boil.
“What are you eating today?”
“I was thinking of having pasta, but after talking with you, Tomoya, I think I’ll have soba noodles instead. My uncle told me that back in Akishina they would boil the chicken with onions and shiitake and things to make soup. That made me think of kamo nanban soba noodles with duck and onion soup.”
“Mmm, sounds tasty.”
I put one portion of noodles into the pan. We rarely ate together, even on weekends. In that sense, too, it was comfortable having him as a life partner.
For his own meals, he usually bought whatever he felt like eating at the convenience store, like bento or rice balls. He hated his mother’s cooking and didn’t particularly want to eat anything homemade. When I was tired, I sometimes did the same, but I would often make something quick and easy like noodles.
“I think I’ll have a quick nap,” he said.
“Go ahead. It is the weekend, after all.”
I had really wanted to get away from the place I’d grown up in, but the main reason I was glad I was still living here was not the proximity to the station but the cheap rent, which afforded us the luxury of renting a condo large enough to sleep separately, each in our own bedroom.
My husband sleepily drank a glass of cold mineral water from the refrigerator then went to his room. I’d never set foot in there, but I’d caught a glimpse of some shelves of his favorite books and some model figures that had been precious to him since childhood. We both spent a lot of time holed up in our respective rooms, but there was nobody here to harass us about it as there had been when we were little, so it was a pleasant enough existence.
I sat at the table to eat the soba noodles I’d made from my uncle’s memories and my imagination. They didn’t taste of anything. My husband had left the window open, and a breeze carrying the smell of autumn blew in and fluttered the tablecloth.
My husband was a full-time employee of a family restaurant an hour’s commute away in Tokyo, and I was an office temp at a company that rented out construction equipment. My contract had just come to an end, and since I had some savings I was taking my time to find a new job.
If too much time passed it would look bad when I went for interviews, so I was thinking of taking two weeks off at most. Still, I’d had to do a lot of overtime in my old job and was enjoying being able to laze around the house all day.
The only slight annoyance was that a number of my childhood friends still lived in the area. Some were single and living with their parents, but like us others were renting condos aimed at young families near the station, and some had even taken out loans to buy their own place. Hearing them all talk about how much easier it was to find day care nurseries here than in Tokyo and how being close to the grandparents was ideal for bringing up children, I thought idly that our town really was an ideal factory for raising children, just as I’d felt back when I was still in elementary school.
Gossip spread fast through the network of classmates left in the area. As soon as I stopped work, a text came from Shizuka.
Been ages 🎵 Bumped into your mom in the mall the other day. She said you’re off work at the mo ⭐ I left my job too and am working part-time now ~🎵 I’m free every Tuesday. Come over for lunch sometime?
I just wanted to relax and enjoy my break so I was a bit reluctant to respond, but I wrote back anyway.
Yay, it’s been ages! I’d love to 🎵 I’ll bring cakes ⭐
Ever since I was little I’d had the habit of imitating my friends’ use of emoji and style when texting. Shizuka never used that many emojis, but she did favor stars and musical notes, so I used them in my answer to her too. I didn’t mean anything much by it. I just thought that matching myself to others might help reduce the chances of causing offense if, for example, my words came across as too tense or gloomy or perhaps too curt and cold.
Shizuka lived in a nearby high-rise. We had ended up at different high schools and universities and had lost contact for a long time, but she had gotten back in touch after she married and moved back to the area six years ago.
I wasn’t the sort to have many friends, and whenever she texted me I found it annoying but was also kind of relieved. Without her to ground me, I thought, I and my husband could easily be left behind together by society.
We quickly decided on a date, and two days later I rang her doorbell carrying some cakes I’d bought from the mall by the station. She had started wearing even heavier makeup since getting married, but otherwise she hadn’t changed much since she was little. She greeted with me with an angelic smile.
“Natsuki, I haven’t seen you for ages! Come on in!”
She was much flashier than she’d been when we were little I thought as she welcomed me effusively. Taking the cakes from me, she showed me through to the living room.
The baby she had produced was sleeping in its cot in the living room. Shizuka’s place always reminded me of the silkworm room in Akishina. The sight of her baby lying here melded in my mind with the rows of baby silkworms in the silkworm room. I had started to think that maybe we, too, were made to breed by a huge invisible hand.
“How have you been?”
“Nothing’s particularly changed. Just I’m thinking that for my next temp job, I’ll look for something closer to home.”
“Definitely a good idea. After all, you’ll be thinking of having kids soon, right? Best get a job where you don’t have to do much overtime. Otherwise you won’t be able to cope with the housework, and you’ll be worn out even before you start raising a child.”
“In our house, my husband and I both do the housework and clean up after ourselves as much as we can.”
When I explained to Shizuka that we even shared the laundry, she sighed.
“That’s wonderful. You’re so lucky to have a husband who does his share of the housework, Natsuki.”
My husband and I each cleaned our own rooms, and in the shared spaces like the living room, kitchen, and bathroom we had a rule that after using them we would return them to their original clean state within twenty-four hours. That way, since we mostly ate our meals separately, we could avoid burdening the other with our own washing up and cleaning. To begin with we’d set the time limit at twelve hours, but I’m the type that likes to go straight to sleep after eating and I couldn’t keep up.
It would probably be different if we had children, but it worked well for us to live according to these very simple rules. Shizuka seemed really envious of our situation.
“Your husband sounds like he’ll make a great dad, Natsuki.”
To avoid Shizuka’s inquisitive gaze, I automatically covered my belly with a handkerchief I’d placed on my knees.
She had at times nonchalantly tried to find out whether I was pregnant. If I happened to drink caffeine-free tea or refrained from alcohol, for example, she would immediately pick up on it and say, “I understand, it’s normal not to tell anyone until you’re sure, isn’t it?”
To be certain she wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I was pregnant now, I asked for another espresso. She looked disappointed as she took my cup and headed for the kitchen.
“I might be jumping the gun a bit here, but don’t hesitate to tell me if you need help looking for a day care nursery or a good hospital or that sort of thing. That sort of information is so important, isn’t it?”
“Thank you. But we haven’t any plans at the moment.”
“Really? It’s not for me to poke my nose into your marriage, but you’d better not leave it too long. A friend of mine currently undergoing infertility treatment said that the hospital she’s going to is really good. If you’re interested, I’m sure she’ll give me the details. There’s a good herbal remedy for that kind of thing too,” she said, smiling.
Shizuka had changed, but in some ways she hadn’t changed at all. She’d grown up, but even now she still believed strongly in society. She had always been exemplary in learning to be a woman, truly a straight-A student. It looked excruciatingly tiring.
When the time came for her to collect her other child from day care, she picked up her baby, and I went back home. I felt rather tired and, without going into our living room, went straight to my bedroom and lay down on the bed.
I’d only been out for lunch and cake in the neighborhood, but I felt strangely exhausted. I decided to change out of my dress so I could sleep and sluggishly got up and opened the closet.
Inside was a tin box. Uncle Teruyoshi had found it in the storehouse when I was little and had given it to me. After taking off my dress, I gently took it out and opened it.
Inside was Piyyut’s blackened corpse, the yellowing marriage pledge, and the wire ring.
“Popinpobopia,” I murmured in a small voice.
I had the feeling that the ring flashed in response, as if that word were a magic spell.
My life had completely changed after what happened between Yuu and me.
Dad had always been taciturn, but after that incident he stopped talking to me altogether. Mom and my sister took turns to keep watch on me. Even after I went on to college and got a job, I was not allowed to leave home.
When I started working as a temp after leaving college, I’d said I’d wanted to live alone, but Dad had refused. “I never know what you’ll get up to without anyone to keep an eye on you,” he said, not looking at me. “It’s my duty to ensure you don’t bring dishonor on the Sasamoto family name.”
I was still expected to become a component for the Factory. It was like a never-ending jail sentence. I thought I probably wouldn’t ever be able to be an effective Factory component. My body was still broken, and even after becoming an adult I wasn’t able to have sex.
In the spring three years ago, when I’d just turned thirty-one, I registered on surinuke dot com. As its name suggested, this was a site where people seeking to evade society’s gaze for some reason, such as marriage, suicide, or debts, could appeal for information or find collaborators. I went to the MARRIAGE page and checked the category for NO SEX • NO CHILDREN • REGISTERED MARRIAGE to search for a partner.
Thirty-year-old male, Tokyo resident, urgently seeks marriage partner to escape family surveillance. Businesslike arrangement with all housework shared, separate finances, and separate bedrooms preferred. Absolutely no sexual activity, and preferably no physical contact beyond a handshake. Someone who refrains from showing bare skin in shared spaces preferred.
Quite a few men checked the box for NO SEX, but this one had caught my eye for having stipulated especially detailed rules. I’d be marrying a complete stranger on the verbal promise of no sex, so the less anxiety a potential partner provoked in me the better. I immediately sent him a message, and after meeting two or three times in a café, we came to a mutual agreement and tied the knot.
My husband was heterosexual, but he’d had to bathe together with his mother until the age of fifteen and simply couldn’t handle a real woman’s body. He did have sexual appetites but he could satisfy them with fiction and wanted to avoid seeing female flesh as much as possible. I never asked him for details, but from what he’d told me his father was extremely strict. If by getting married he could get them off his back, he would be grateful.
When we lodged our marriage papers at city hall, my parents and sister were so delighted it was almost creepy. Neither my husband nor I had many friends, and I didn’t want to see my relatives after what had happened, so we didn’t hold a ceremony. My sister strongly recommended we take a commemorative photo at least, but we decided against that too.
My husband had an elder brother, but they didn’t get along very well. In that respect, too, our family environments were similar. It made things easier.
I’d hoped that after my marriage I’d be able to leave the area I’d grown up in, but due to my parents’ strong wishes and the fact that it would have been astronomically expensive to rent a two-bedroom place in Tokyo, we chose this condo near the Mirai New Town station. My sister had also tried to persuade us to buy a place instead of renting, but we rejected that idea.
Life with my husband was pleasant in its own way. We ate our meals separately. If there were any leftovers we sometimes shared them. We also washed our clothes and underwear separately, me on Saturday, he on Sunday. We each washed our own towels, and we would do the shared items like the curtains, toilet mats, and so forth together on a day off once every few months or so. We took turns to clean the toilet every weekend. There were lots of rules, but as long as we kept to them it meant we didn’t have to do anything bothersome. Once I got used to the arrangement, I found it comfortable.
I was extremely relieved about his insistence on absolutely no sexual contact. He was more neurotic about it than I was. The loungewear I’d previously worn at home exposed my calves, which revolted him, so I started wearing a tracksuit instead. We hadn’t even so much as shaken hands. At most our fingertips had brushed handing over a parcel.
I’d always vaguely assumed that I would automatically become a Factory component when I grew up, but this didn’t happen, and with this arrangement we really did slip past the gaze of relatives and friends and others who lived in the neighborhood.
Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory. My husband and I were people they’d failed to brainwash, and anyone who remained unbrainwashed had to keep up an act in order to avoid being eliminated by the Factory.
I once asked my husband why he’d registered at surinuke dot com. “I thought it was written into our contract not to pry into that,” he said, clearly uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry, that was out of order. I didn’t mean to infringe on our contract.”
“No, it’s okay. I feel surprisingly relaxed talking with you, Natsuki.”
It wasn’t that my husband had no interest in sex. Instead he thought it wasn’t something to do but rather something to observe. He enjoyed watching, but he was apparently disgusted by the notion of touching or being touched by someone who was discharging fluid. Another problem my husband had was that he hated working. This was obvious in his behavior at work, so he found it hard to hold a job down.
“Deep down everyone hates work and sex, you know. They’re just hypnotized into thinking that they’re great.” My husband was always saying that.
His parents, his brother and his wife, and his friends sometimes came to spy on us. My and my husband’s womb and testes were quietly kept under observation by the Factory. Anyone who didn’t manufacture new life—or wasn’t obviously trying to—came under gentle pressure. Couples that hadn’t manufactured new life had to demonstrate their contribution to the Factory through their work.
My husband and I were living quietly in a corner of the Factory, keeping our heads down.
Before I knew it, I had turned thirty-four, and twenty-three years had passed since that night with Yuu. Even after all this time, I still wasn’t living my life so much as simply surviving.
Early the following week my husband was fired from his seventh job.
“I can’t believe that company flouted the labor standards law so blatantly. I’ll get my revenge, just you wait!”
He couldn’t handle alcohol so he was guzzling Coke, shaking with rage. He had often felt uncomfortable at work and changed jobs of his own volition, but this was the first time he’d been fired. I was surprised too.
It appeared he’d been caught using money from the safe at the restaurant he’d been working at for the past year to play pachinko. After he told me about this, I thought it was hardly surprising he’d been fired. I was just glad the police hadn’t been involved.
“But all I did was invest money to make more out of it, then gave it back! What’s wrong with using the store’s money to do that? It’s so unfair.”
“Anyone who breaks the rules in the Factory is harshly judged. It can’t be helped. You’ll just have to find another job.”
My husband threw himself down on the sofa, pushing his face into a cushion. “Dad’s going to be on my back every day again now. I want to go somewhere far away!”