Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Sayaka Murata’s novella Convenience Store Woman, a wonderfully offbeat story that posed some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. There’s more of that strangeness here in Life Ceremony, a collection of thirteen short stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. It’s an excellent collection, raising provocative questions about why certain things are deemed acceptable while others are not.
By exploring our societal constructs, Murata exposes the absurdities and hypocrisies of various conventional beliefs, destabilising our perceptions of what is ‘normal’ vs ‘weird’ or taboo. Many of these stories are set either in the near future or in an alternate reality where societal practices have changed, shifting the boundaries of which behaviours are considered off-limits.
As with most short story collections, some pieces resonate more strongly than others, so my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and underlying themes. While the longer pieces are particularly effective, even Murata’s short sketches have something interesting to offer – the germ or an idea or a lasting impression to consider.
In the opening story, a First-Rate Material, we enter a world in which human bones, skin and other body parts are routinely repurposed into useful objects following a person’s death. These recycled items are not only considered acceptable but highly desirable, frequently attracting high price tags due to their quality and beauty. The young lovers in the story have wildly different perceptions of this practice, prompting us to question who is behaving strangely here – the young woman who longs to fill her new home with furniture made from bones, or the young man who baulks at the idea of these furnishings and wedding rings made of teeth?
Murata’s story asks us to question the man’s objections to this form of recycling. Why shouldn’t human bodies be repurposed in this way following death? Surely that’s less wasteful than being cremated, thereby allowing parts of the body to have an extended ‘life’, converting them into items to be admired and enjoyed by others? Taboo-busting ideas as far as our current society is concerned, but not in the world that the author portrays here.
The titular tale, Life Ceremony, takes some of these ideas even further, challenging our perceptions of the nature of human flesh. In the environment depicted here, funerals have been replaced by life ceremonies, where the deceased’s flesh is cooked and made into a meal for their family and friends to feast on – a joyous celebration of life as opposed to the solemn mourning of a death. As an additional flourish, guests are encouraged to find an insemination partner to have sex with in a public place – thereby continuing the circle of life, should the conception prove successful. Attitudes towards sex have changed over time due to a population decline, and procreation is now seen as a form of social justice to support the ongoing survival of the human race.
While the custom of eating human flesh has become deeply ingrained in this society, the narrator – a woman in her mid-thirties – can recall a time in her childhood when such practices were forbidden, highlighting the shifts in attitudes and the boundaries of ‘normality’. There is a sense that humans are becoming more like animals in this rather affecting story – a darkly humorous tale tinged with a dash of poignancy. Another thought-provoking piece designed to challenge our preconceptions and impressions of what feels ‘right’ vs taboo.
Our perceptions of sex are also pertinent to A Clean Marriage, another provocative story that plays with conventional norms. In essence, this piece explores the idea that sex for pleasure and sex for procreation are two completely different concerns, to the point where a person might seek separate partners or ‘processes’ to fulfil these contrasting aims. As with other stories in this collection, there is the germ of a rational concept here which Murata cleverly develops through her slightly skewed scenario. Another excellent tale that derives humour from life’s absurdities (as depicted here).
Food is another recurring theme or motif, sometimes acting as a cultural signifier as in A Magnificent Spread – one of the less controversial pieces in the collection. In this humorous story, a newly-engaged couple host a lunch for their respective families to meet for the first time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each member of the extended family comes with their own deep-seated preferences for food, ranging from an obsession with ‘Happy Future’ functional health foods to a fondness for insects and grubs foraged from the natural world. In essence, the story illustrates the importance of respecting other people’s cultures and values rather than forcing them to accept our own. Naturally, our attitudes towards different foods are a key part of these cultural codes, as Murata’s highly amusing story neatly demonstrates.
Other stories explore unconventional family units, highlighting the value participants gain from these relationships despite a lack of understanding from other, more ‘conventional’ sectors of society. Two’s Family is an excellent example of this – a beautiful, touching story of two women, Yoshiko and Kikue, who had previously decided to live together for life if they remained unattached by the age of thirty. Now in their seventies, the two women have enjoyed living together in a non-sexual relationship for forty years, raising three daughters conceived through artificial insemination from a sperm bank. While Yoshiko is quite guarded at heart, Kikue is more outgoing, having enjoyed several lovers over the years. But with Kikue now undergoing treatment for cancer, Yoshiko wonders what will become of her should Kikue die. Like a marriage of sorts, life with Kikue is all Yoshiko has ever known. This very affecting story works brilliantly, especially as a contrast to some of the book’s other, more controversial pieces.
Finally, I must mention the penultimate story, Hatchling, because it’s probably my pick of the bunch. Narrated by a Haruka, a young woman planning her wedding, Hatchling explores the benefits and dangers of code-switching – the practice of flexing our personality to fit in with different social groups, depending on the ‘tone’ each group requires. Since junior high, Haruka has become so used to adapting her behaviour that she no longer knows who she really is. Maybe she doesn’t even have a genuinepersonality of her own, only a series of five or six ‘characters’ dictated by each particular situation or environment. For instance, she is the straight-A student ‘Prez’ with her junior high classmates, the goofball ‘Peabrain’ for her high school friends and the girly ‘Princess’ with her film club at Uni. The real problem comes when Haruki contemplates her forthcoming wedding. Which ‘character’ should she adopt there, given the mix of friends attending? And perhaps more importantly, which personality would her fiancé prefer? Maybe this depends on the character he will be playing on the day, and how will she know in advance?
This is an excellent piece, full of cleverly-constructed scenes that Murata plays out in a highly amusing manner. In short, the story highlights the dangers of adopting a carefully-curated persona in front of others, especially if we lose sight of our inherent values and behaviours.
So, in summary, a truly excellent collection of stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. What Murata does so well here is to skew our world just enough to destabilise our preconceived notions of the boundaries of acceptability. She challenges us to look at the world afresh by exploring the validity of an alternate, less constrained view.
Life Ceremony is published by Granta Books; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing an early proof copy.