Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata — scattered and dreamlike Tokyo stories


Sayaka Murata writes about the most ordinary life. His previous book, 2016 Woman convenience store, was an idiosyncratic novel that peeled back the layers of this most mundane work – adding a rambling relationship and family ties for good measure. And while ceremony of lifehis latest collection of short stories, set in Tokyo, these tales unfold in a range of universally familiar settings: a hospital ward, a restaurant crowded with women having lunch, a classroom.

But the ordinary is a shape-shifting concept. Normal, as one of his characters says, “is a type of madness. . . I think it’s just that the only craziness that society allows is called normal.

In Murata’s world, societal conventions are upended, leaving the reader with an uncomfortable feeling of being out of sync. The underage sex enjoyed by Shiho in “Body Magic,” for example, would outrage adults, the narrator concedes, “but I thought she was just being true to her own body.” Some push this malaise further.

In the opening story, “A Prime Material”, Nana’s future husband is considered unusual for his abhorrence of furniture and clothing made from dead humans. Not for him the bone rings and furniture made of human teeth – or even his fiancée’s human hair swimsuit – which are coveted by most people. Nana’s friends struggle to understand this weakness and sympathize when she has to accept a platinum engagement ring.

This subversion of ‘normal’ behavior reaches its climax in the title track, in which the dead are cooked into delicious dishes, consumed by their funeral guests, who then hook up in an effort to reproduce. “Life Ceremony” asks: Is it really better to mourn deceased loved ones with crisp, curly sandwiches? Or is there a case to be made for a splendid meal before stripping down to have sex with a fellow mourner?

Murata’s prose, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is both pared-down and dreamlike. About the funeral orgy, she writes: “It was like a scene from antiquity, ancient life forms coming out of the sea onto the land. . . But she can also delight in describing scenarios that turn her stomach. Sanae, who tends to her drunk coworker over a toilet bowl in “Puzzle,” relishes “being enveloped in the scent of bodily fluids steeped in the smell of viscera.” The world, Murata seems to be saying, is not the polished, masked, civilized one we strive to create.

Characters appear in and out of stories; same names, different circumstances. In “A Summer Night’s Kiss” – a lyrical and fabulous tale – Yoshiko lives with her husband until his death; in the following story, “Two’s Family”, his living arrangements are a platonic household with a friend and their children combined.

“A clean marriage” is just that: a couple who live as careful siblings, sparing financial and other resources while sharing sex with other partners. “These days, your partner isn’t necessarily a sex object – that’s a wonderful breakthrough.” But when they opt for children via a Heath Robinson-style mechanized contraption, the experience leaves the husband feeling violated.

A ridiculous scenario? Or is it the idea of ​​settling down, with all the daily minutiae that entails, with the object of one’s passion that is more ridiculous? Murata’s art is to circumnavigate the globe so that abnormal, uncivil, or even wild paths appear – if only momentarily – to make sense.

ceremony of life by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Granta £12.99, 272 pages

Louise Lucas is an FT Lex writer

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