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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Review: ‘Life Ceremony,’ by Sayaka Murata

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By Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
244 pages. Grove Press. $25.

The Japanese writer Sayaka Murata is best known for “Convenience Store Woman,” her 2016 novel about Keiko, a friendless woman who, to tamp down her darker impulses, devotes her life to a job as an anonymous cashier in a Tokyo food mart.

Murata’s prose is deadpan, as clear as cellophane, and has the tidiness of a bento box. She’s not the most subtle writer. You don’t read her for her extra-fine perceptual apparatus. You read her because when her stuff works, it’s chilly and transgressive at the same time.

Her new book is “Life Ceremony,” a collection of stories. The characters are middle-class women who, like Keiko, live in and around Tokyo. They grew up in the suburbs; they live in tiny condos in the city; their careers are unremarkable.

Murata pushes on the ordinary until it extrudes into unusual shapes. The title story is about Maho, a young woman in a bland corporate job. She’s invited to a “life ceremony” for an older manager who has died. Life ceremonies, we learn, involve eating the deceased, to honor them.

James Beard said he could probably be a cannibal if he had enough tarragon. Here the flesh is stewed and served up hot-pot style. “You get better soup stock from men,” someone comments.

Japanese society is divided by this new practice. Murata is interested in how disgust drives ethics, in why some things repel us but not others. Adherents of life ceremonies think they’re just a happy way of spreading the deceased’s energy around.

The story becomes ghoulishly funny, in a “Fargo” sort of way. Some time after the manager’s ceremony, Maho is asked to help cut up and prepare the body of a different co-worker. The dead man’s mother thinks Maho was his close friend. Maho doesn’t have the heart to tell her she was just his smoking partner.

Stripping flesh from bone, she thinks, “I remembered his strong, hairy arms lifting his beer glass.” It’s a nice touch when she takes home leftovers in Tupperware.

This story delves, too, into anxieties about population loss. Life ceremonies also involve “inseminations”; couples partner up and go outside. I remain confused about how these inseminations differ from sex, but the story ends when a kind stranger hands Maho a small bottle into which he has made a deposit.

Murata taps a similar vein in a story titled “A First-Rate Material.” It’s set in a Japan where it’s become chic to wear sweaters made from human hair, as well as earrings and wedding rings made from teeth. Human shinbone chairs are coveted, as are rib-cage tables and bookshelves that use shoulder blades as dividers.

A young woman, Nana, is preparing to marry a young man who’s repulsed by these things. The story’s smart conceit is to make him the moral outlier. Nana comments, “He was such a gentle person and I still couldn’t believe he could be so harsh and cruel as to say that we should discard the entire body even though so much could be reused.”

Credit…Bungeishunju Ltd.

Another story is about two older women, friends who have lived together for a long time and have raised children. One is wildly promiscuous; the other has never had sex. Murata likes to examine the intersections where extremes meet.

A few of the stories are quite long; others are vignettes. A handful are banal. “Lover on the Breeze” is told from the perspective of a window curtain in a high school girl’s bedroom. Even in her best stories, Murata has a weakness for thesis statements.

This is especially true in the agreeably bonkers story “A Magnificent Spread.” It’s about a husband and wife who eat bizarre, freeze-dried health food because it’s popular with celebrities. The woman’s sister, Kumi, thinks she’s a reincarnated warrior from a magic city, and she claims to cook and eat only the food from there. (Dandelion flowers boiled in orange juice is one dish.)

Kumi’s future in-laws like to eat stewed bugs: caterpillars, grubs, grasshoppers. This group is miserable together at the table until they realize, as if this were an after-school special, “we don’t have to eat out of the same pot to understand each other.”

The best story in “Life Ceremony” is the most straightforward. It’s titled “Body Magic,” and it’s about teenage girls and their bodies and crushes and propriety. The narrator, Ruri, doesn’t consider herself a prude, but she’s shocked at how advanced her friend Shiho is.

Shiho had sex in the summer before her first year of junior high. “My first thought,” Ruri thinks, “was that she must have been taken advantage of by some pervert with a Lolita fetish.” But as Shiho begins to talk, Ruri is entranced by her articulate and organic sense of pleasure and control.

“Wanting to get inside someone’s skin,” Ruri thinks after Shiho uses the phrase. “That sort of thing had never even occurred to me. The other girls didn’t look like they were kissing boys out of any particular desire of their own. It was more like they wanted to prove to themselves that, having been subjected to a kiss, they were all clued in and grown up.”

Murata’s prose, in this translation from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is generally so cool you could chill a bottle of wine in it. “Body Magic” is warmer, and more subtle. It made me wonder if she really needs the big-time conceits.

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