Life Ceremony: Stories
By Sayaka Murata
(Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Grove Press — 5 July 2022
ISBN: 9780802159588 — Hardcover — 256 pp.
I’m new to Sayaka Murata’s writing, though many English language readers may already be familiar with her work through the prior translations of her novels Convenience Store Woman or Earthlings by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Takemori continues the commendable and celebrated work of translating Murata’s fiction here with a first collection of short stories rendered into English: Life Ceremony.
As with Earthlings, the stories of Life Ceremony fall into that literary category of magical realism. Though they may all be set on a relatively contemporary Earth, they also almost all have some outré element placing them within perhaps some other universe, world, or near-future. Though employing elements appreciated in conventional literary fiction, Murata’s work here also mines the speculative fantasy genre in ways that would make the stories equally recognizable in genre magazines like Uncanny or Asimov’s (to name a pair.)
Specifically Murata uses subtle dark fantasy in this collection of stories to explore the inherent subjectivity and permeability of cultural taboos across places and time: customs that seem fixed at any moment yet shift in the grand scheme of humanity according to societal contexts and individual revelations. The characters populating the stories in Life Ceremony are navigating those conventional literary realms of self discovery, realization, within worlds that seem confusing, without any irresolute compass of tradition to steadfastly rely upon.
Murata expressly voices this theme through the words of her protagonist in the title story of this collection. Here, they may apply to ‘instinct’ and ‘morality’, but ‘custom’ or any other related term remain equally applicable through the swath of stories in Life Ceremony.
I feel like pointing out that until a moment ago they had been talking about a different human instinct. Instinct doesn’t exist. Morals don’t exist. They were just fake sensibilities that came from a world that was constantly transforming.
Now, not every story in Life Ceremony deeply delves into the same echoed theme or dash of weirdness. A few more conventional, and at times bright or sweet, tales are mixed in along those darkly deviant ones. For those interested in some detail on the specific contents, here’s a basic rundown of the twelve stories that make up the collection:
“A First-Rate Material” – A superb start to the collection to set the tone and themes that unite all to follow. A couple debate their comfort with incorporating parts of humans into objects for recycled use. What once was only normal to do with other animals, has now become fashionable and accepted for the human source as well: organs, hair, nails, etc. being used to make everything from bags to furniture to clothes, etc. Taking Victorian mourning jewelry trends and morbid appreciations to logical extensions, this story also uniquely makes readers consider what we consider as perfectly untroubling in our use of fellow animals.
“A Magnificent Spread” – Reading this reminded me of a criticism in the newspaper I came across awhile back regarding viewer objection to a recurring segment on a late-night comedy talk show where the host would have guests eat some sort of ‘disgusting’ food and watch to watch their revulsion and reactions. The issue of course is subjectivity. One culture’s ‘disgusting’ is another’s ‘delicacy’, and branding something of non-European tradition that is respected elsewhere as ‘disgusting’ is fraught with issues. This story delves into that idea over a dinner where a dating couple is about to ‘meet the parents’. It works well with more humor and light-heartedness than some of the other stories contain.
“A Summer Night’s Kiss” – A shorter work approaching alienation/belonging through an elderly character who is a virgin and was herself conceived without sex, through in vitro fertilization.
“Two’s Family” – A tender tale where the outsider aspect of it has already become more accepted in the world: non-traditional families. Two female friends who have decided to platonically live together after each failing to find a romantic partner by the age of thirty look back on their life and family at later age, facing mortality.
“The Time of the Large Star” – Another shorter, and largely atmospheric piece, with the most other-worldy setting within the collection: a land of night where no one sleeps. It’s a story of adapting to a staggeringly unfamiliar world, composed in a haunting, almost dream-like way.
“Poochie” – I actually recently watched a classic Kids in the Hall sketch that shares the basic premise of this amusingly absurd short story: some children adopt a wayward businessman as a pet. Canada or Japan, TV or book, the humor translates just as effectively.
“Life Ceremony” – If the morbidity of human body parts being repurposed doesn’t put one off in grotesque shock from the first story in the collection, this title story may. The society of this story exists comfortably with a tradition of ritualistic cannibalism as a quasi-symbolic practice for libido enhancement and mating rituals. It’s a change brought on by alarming falls in global birth rates. Though the protagonist of the story has great qualms with what was taboo being now so quickly accepted, her journey and interactions lead her to begin reconsidering her visceral response and what meanings the rite might actually hold.
“Body Magic” – I’d consider this the weakest of stories in the collection. Like the previous story this is set in a world where traditions of sexual interaction are different, here told from the perspective of high school girls.
“Lover on the Breeze” – The curtains on the window of a young girl serve here as a very unconventional narrator, in a love-triangle sort of story with the arrival of a boyfriend who begins to visit her room as she grows older.
“Puzzle” – An extremely bizarre story with a woman who seems to actually? be a building, but who is in search of biological fluids of others. I think this is one I’d need to reread to try and grasp further.
“Eating the City” – I loved the ecological concepts in this story, which addresses botanical traditions societies may have over what is considered food or not – if it is grown wild, or not; a weed, or not; grown on a farm versus grown in an urban landscape.
“Hatchling” – With the final story Murata subverts the idea of a world or culture in constant flux into the concept of a person in context flux, a character who has no real personality, but is rather an amalgam of ersatz personas built and arranged in a way to simply fit into society as the situations of life may demand. It’s a nicely philosophical way to end the collection and tie up the overarching theme of the stories herein, full-circle.
The characters within Life Ceremony are riding the waves of transformative societies and self maturation, trying to find compromises – something assured – within the bouleversements of human existence. Murata’s stories demonstrate that moments of stability become possible by learning an openness to curiosity and adaptation, and through celebrations of life and death that define our mortality.
This is a collection that should be picked up by speculative fantasy fans and conventional literary readers alike. The offbeat, sometimes grotesque or shocking nature of some of the stories may cause some members of the latter group to pause. But expanding of horizons and looking at things from a slightly off-kilter perspective is exactly what the appropriately titled Life Ceremony collection is all about.
Thanks to Grove Press and NetGalley alike for the opportunity to discover more fantastic literature in translation.