I was washing the dishes and looking out the back yard at the birds which had flocked to my apple tree to roost for the night when I thought, you know we’re just apes. It’s wild to think that we’re just apes. I’m not trying to sell you any crypto grift or anything, just laughing that we are just apes.
Apes that play football. Apes that blog about other people playing football. Apes that wash their dishes. Apes that pick the leaves off a bush, set them in the sun to ferment, grind them up, pour boiling water over them and then drink the beverage. Apes that are aware that they are apes (sometimes).
I finished the book Earthlings by Sayaka Murata recently, it’s a book Avie read and I thought I’d like to read it as well and I have to say I was surprised! I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone. What’s it got going for it? Well, it is an exceptionally fast read. I haven’t read anything that was so easy to read since probably the last Harry Potter book.
The genre is horror. And unless you have zero triggers, I would suggest strongly that you investigate the trigger warnings before you read the book. I went into it with zero warnings and was surprised. And the surprises just kept coming, all the way to the gruesome ending.
What I can say without giving away any of the plot or any of the surprises is that Murata excellently weaves in the pressures of Japanese life and the expectations women carry into her story. Each time I hit a scene where she was describing some fresh horror happening to one of the characters it was accompanied by a strong Japanese cultural underpinning. The things that happen in the book, especially in the first 3/4 of the book, all make a perfect – if perverted – sense when seen through the lense of a culture which prizes family honor and social conformity.
My favorite imagery from Earthlings is how the protagonist (Natsuki) sees society as a factory. The job of the Earthlings is to become a productive worker for the factory, to live in a cubicle, and reproduce. Of course you’ve heard this critique of society before but for some reason when Natsuki says it, I think of Japanese apartment complexes, and their tiny spaces, where humans are sort of socked away at night to refresh them for their work the next day. In fact Natsuki lives that way with her husband for the middle portion of the novel.
But the other, most powerful message in the novel was Children’s lives never belong to them. The grownups own us. This is something I have fought against with my parenting. I believe that children need to be listened to by parents. I believe that we often treat children like property, something we own, something we have to maintain, protect, and so on like a car, rather than like a fellow human being. Of course, I’m responsible for my child’s safety and I take that very seriously. But I strive to maintain his agency and respect him as a fellow human being (my little ape). When he spoke, I listened. When he asked me questions, I asked him questions. When I fucked up (lost my temper, etc.), I owned it and apologized. And of course, I love Avie and tell him that I love him and that I’m proud of him and celebrate his accomplishments. This is not how I was raised. I was raised as a piece of property. My father referred to us as “his little tax breaks” when he was most generous and much much worse when he wasn’t. We were beaten when we made errors or didn’t do well in school. My life did not belong to me until I turned 18 and I was constantly reminded of that fact.
Natsuki rebels against this control in a horrific and possibly the most transgressive manner, while my rebellion was punk music, alcohol, cigs, skateboarding and ditching school. So, we aren’t the same in that way. But the main point of control and lack of agency – and rebelling against that – struck home.
Murata Sayaka is one of the most brilliant writers of our time. Earthlings is a challenging book, filled with horrific imagery, and yet at the same time weaved around important topics which will certainly make you think about your life differently. But, again, I can’t recommend this book. All I can say is that I read it, it reads like a Young Adult novel, there are some themes I agreed with and many that I didn’t which I can’t even write about here without giving away huge spoilers.
If you are looking for more information about Murata, her other works, (which include spoilers) I strongly recommend this article on nippon.com.