Life Ceremony Stories by Sayaka Murata. Translated by Tapley Takemori

'' Serving the dead. '' [ That's not metaphorical ].

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 extrafine perceptual apparatus. You read her because when her stuff works, it's chilly and transgressive at the same time.

Her new book '' Life Ceremony '' is 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 honour 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 something repels us but not others. Adherents of life ceremonies think they're just a happy way of spreading the deceased's energy around.

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 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.

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 around 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. The narrator, Ruri, doesn't consider herself a prude, but she's shocked at how advanced her friend Sheibo is.

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.

The World Students Society thanks review author Dwight Garner.


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