In 2020 perhaps more than all the other years combined I’ve wondered if being human was really such a good thing. Not that I have a choice in the matter. Does anyone? Well…maybe Natsuki, the protagonist of Earthlings, has an inkling.
Natsuki, who we see as both a young girl and a grown woman at different points in the book, is profoundly alienated from her friends and family. So much so that she believes she’s an alien, and has secret alien allies from planet Popinpobopia. One is her beloved cousin Yuu. The other is her friend Piyyut—who takes the form of a toy stuffed hedgehog she bought. Aliens have given her hope and magic powers. They’ve given her a purpose: to fight evil, and to survive no matter what.
Survival ought to be a matter of course for an fifth-grader, but for Natsuki it’s a near-impossible challenge. Her sense of alienation is not just some youthful fantasy, after all. Even at her young age, she’s faced and will continue to face some of the most soul-destroying forces humans can level at one another. A note: this book should come with a trigger warning for child abuse and child sexual abuse, as well as for victim-blaming. It was, at times, nearly unbearable to read with the way my heart ached for Natsuki. I want to emphasize, though, that this is a searing critique of those injustices, not an exploitation of them. I admire Murata’s brutal honesty even if it was difficult to experience alongside Natsuki.
Earthlings shows us the utter heartlessness of adults and the so-called “adult” world, even when children are grown. But it also shows us the Natsuki’s quiet tenacity and cleverness in the face of oppression, and the ways she escapes or resists in small ways.
Natsuki doesn’t entirely see it that way, though. Part of her wants to forget all her personal needs and desires and be subsumed by what she called The Factory, or the work-and-family-and-babies aspect of society. To be different is exhausting. But to be the same is exhausting, too. Natsuki knows she has to survive, but can she manage more than that? Can she truly be her alien self anywhere in this world, and are there other aliens to share her experience with?
The book contains great ugliness, it’s true, but also great beauty as Natsuki tries again and again to find the places and people who support her true self. Slowly, Natsuki finds others who understand the parts of her that most everyone else finds strange. Together, they find ways to be strange together, building up to an ending that really is a pinnacle of strangeness—of being alien.
The ending is…odd. If the rest of the book hadn’t been so utterly coherent, I’d be tempted to accuse Murata of giving up right at the end and just turning it in as-is. There’s such a procession of radical, shocking developments in the last 30 pages that it’s difficult to reconcile the last page of the book to its first.
So let me revisit that statement: the ending is odd. Yes. And Murata’s overarching philosophy is that odd is good. Odd is worthy. Square pegs have value in a society of round holes.
But the ending shows us people who do indeed break such profound taboos that they’re not so much square pegs as bricks, smashing the whole thing apart. So is Murata undermining her philosophy here by showing us that difference leads to gruesome ends? Or is she saying that constantly forcing people to conform will lead to far more upsetting outcomes than just letting people be?
I’m inclined toward the latter, but of course I would be, as a bit of an oddball myself and as an individualistic American. But both of those points are unsatisfying in that they’re merely didactic. I don’t think it should be read either way; rather, I think it should be read a bit like Life of Pi.
Was there a tiger in Life of Pi? Was the whole journey a delusion? And if so, does it negate the trauma, revelation, and development that the characters experience?
The problem lies in trying to describe literature as factual when we should be asking whether it’s true. Because of course it’s not factual! It’s literature! It’s all made up. So it maybe doesn’t matter if Earthlings ends with a big delusion or if there’s a chance that Natsuki was on to something all along.
So let’s try this again: is the ending of Earthlings True with a capital T? Yes. Unequivocally. The whole book is about whether or not Natsuki gets to live on her terms, and so we can use that subjective criteria in our own assessment. Natsuki finds a way and a place to be herself, and with it comes healing and fulfillment. Is she a role model? Hell no. Hopefully readers don’t want to be as extreme as Popinpobopians, or like Factory people. In that space between the two is the essential question: well, then, what do I want? Which really is the perfect conclusion for a Murata novel. It’s up to you: what do you, an individual person experiencing this book as only you can, really want to do next?