Monday, September 20, 2021

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I had this one on my list, but my second kid (who is into all things Japanese), read it and passed it along. I also try to read a few books in translation every year - I love the different vibes you get from different countries and cultures. 


Convenience Store Woman is a short novella, and a rather unusual one at that. With the exception of the one major event in the book, nothing changes; and in fact, the event is an anomaly, so by the end, things have gone back to the way they were at the beginning. The tone of the book also remains the same throughout, and the perspective of the narrator is static. 


The basic plot is this: the narrator, Keiko is an odd woman, who has never fit into society. If I were to give an armchair diagnosis, I would say she is on the autism spectrum, in part because some of the stories from her childhood parallel those of my wife’s autistic uncle, including what Keiko says about the incidents. Certainly, she is neurodiverse in some way or another. Just to give a couple of examples, she discovers a dead bird in the park, and suggests to her mother that they bring it home and cook it. In another incident, she stops a fight at school by hitting one of the combattants in the head with a shovel. As she explained to the horrified school counselor, the fight needed stopping, and “I just thought that would be the quickest way to do it.” 


Keiko’s family keeps trying to “fix” her, but she doesn’t feel she needs fixing. She mostly wants to be left alone. 


Later, when she attends the university, she sees that a convenience store would soon be opening, and was hiring. She decides to give it a try, and discovers that she has found her life calling. There is a giant procedures manual to learn, and rigid and repeatable things to do. It is like heaven. Finally, she has the ability to perfectly meet expectations and become the model citizen. Well, at least model employee. So, Keiko decides to work there indefinitely. 


Eighteen years later, there is finally (at about the midpoint of the book) a change. A man her age, Shiraha, starts working at the store. He is everything she is not: unpredictable, incompetent, rebellious, and insubordinate. He is soon fired, but he and Keiko run into each other later. 


Shiraha too is an outsider, except he refuses to conform at all. He is also an asshole, but there you have it. He makes Keiko a proposition: if she lets him live with her, she can appear “normal” - have a boyfriend and eventual husband if she wants. She supports him, he gives her a “normal” story. He is clear that he finds her ugly and would never have sex with her. He also doesn’t intend to do anything useful with himself. His value is in what he makes her appear. 


Keiko is skeptical at first, but soon decides that Shiraha would be like a pet - kind of like an unaffectionate cat or something. She would feed him and let him sleep in the bathroom, and she would get her story. 


The problem is, she ends up not liking being “normal.” All of a sudden, other people, instead of thinking of her as weird, start expecting her to not be, and flooding her with advice and sympathy and other things she cannot handle well. Which is why, in the end, she has to find another store to work at, one where nobody knows about Shiraha. 


The book does a good bit of backhanded musing on societal conformity, the modern industrial workplace, and the way society treats people who are different. And particularly about the expectations placed on single women.  


So yes, that’s a bit weird. Keiko has a peculiar way of talking too, in part because she has adopted the language and cadence of the workplace in everyday life. Her perspective on life is decidedly different as well, which makes the book feel like seeing life from the perspective of a different species at times. And yet, it also feels familiar, as if we all have some element of Keiko in us. It is effective writing (and effectively translated by Ginny Takemori.) Here are a few examples that stood out to me. 


It was fun to see all kinds of people - from university students and guys who played in bands to job-hoppers, housewives, and kids studying for their high school diploma at night school - don the same uniform and transform into the homogenous being known as a convenience store worker. Once the day’s training was over, everyone removed their uniforms and reverted to their original state. It was like changing costumes to become a different creature. 


The thing is, for Keiko, she never changes the costume, so to speak. She becomes the Convenience Store Worker incarnate. 


When I can’t sleep, I think about the transparent glass box that is still stirring with life even in the darkness of night. That pristine aquarium is still operating like clockwork. As I visualize the scene, the sounds of the store reverberate in my eardrums and lull me to sleep. When morning comes, once again I’m a convenience store worker, a cog in society. This is the only way I can be a normal person. 


Or how about this perceptive observation? 


When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating, not to mention a pain in the neck. Sometimes I even wanted to hit them with a shovel to shut them up, like I did that time in elementary school.


Yeah, me too, Keiko. 


In a weird way, Keiko and Shiraha are alike, although, as I noted, he is not just odd, but a jerk. This exchange during their discussion of the possibility of a marriage is fascinating. 


“What the hell are you saying? That’s ridiculous! I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’ll ever be able to get it up with you, Furukura.”

“Get it up? Um, what has that got to do with marriage? Marriage is a matter of paperwork, an erection is a physiological phenomenon.” 


This was a fascinating book, and not exactly like anything else I have ever read. I also feel like ten different readers could take ten (or more) different impressions and ideas away from it. Which is a sign that it has something deeper going on with it than a quick glance would suggest. 


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