Everyone has a ‘manual of life’ readily ingrained in their head, instinctively following unspoken rules and unsignposted paths – at least, that’s what Keiko Furukura thinks. What she knows, however, is that she was born without said manual, and has to look to friends and family to figure out what exactly it is that a 36-year-old woman should be doing, wearing, and even saying. That’s why she likes working at Smile Mart, a 24-hour convenience store in one of Tokyo’s bustling business districts. When she got her part time job there 18 years ago, the first in a long line of managers gave her a staff manual. It might not have been a manual for life, but in the brightly-lit glass box of her beloved convenience store, Keiko is able to follow the rules and steps in the manual and be – or at least appear to be – something called ‘normal’. Some people spend their lives trying to be a spanner in the works. All Keiko wants is to be a well-oiled, fully-functioning cog. As she says herself: “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.”
That is the premise of Japanese author Sayaka Murata’s novel, the first of her ten to be translated into English. It is a deeply earnest little book. Let’s put it this way: I never thought I’d be fighting back tears over how tins are stacked in a convenience store. Not that this book is a source of misery – not at all! It is a bright, neon read, as glaringly different as its narrator and protagonist, Keiko. It is made clear from the very beginning that Keiko is different. Not in the ‘you’re a wizard, Harry’ kind of way. She is not a hero. At least, not in the conventional sense. Two examples are given early on to show us her character. Firstly, an incident where, as a child, she finds a dead bird and insists that they take it home for her father’s dinner. Unlike the other horrified children, she doesn’t see the tragedy or the loss – just the logic and potential. She doesn’t see what has passed, just what is present. The second example is, again, as a child. She gets in trouble for whacking a boy over the head with a shovel. This might seem an aggressively violent act, but little Keiko can’t understand why she’s in trouble. The boy had been fighting, and everyone had been shouting for someone to make it stop. So Keiko had made it stop. All she wants is to please people, to do what she is told is right. She wants, as we all do, to be accepted. She is an unwilling outcast, desperately bowing down at the cathedral of society and letting the colours of the stained-glass windows bathe her in the light of normality. She absorbs the colours of other people (literally; she imitates the vocal patterns and vocabulary of those around her) until she is not the stained-glass window itself, but a watery refraction of it. Enough to trick the undiscerning eye.
If Keiko is rejected by society, then Shiraha – the closest this novella has to an antagonist – actively rejects society. In this post #MeToo world, Shiraha feels like a caricature of the archetypal ‘incel’ (‘involuntarily celibate’). He harasses female customers, constantly compares modern life to the Stone Age, and harbours a bitter hatred towards women (“I always did want revenge,” he says, chillingly, towards the end of the novel, “on women who are allowed to become parasites just because they’re women”). They both share the status of ‘outcast’, but it has shaded both of them differently. In him, it has bred disdain and reciprocal rejection. In her, it has manifested in a sort of softly envious isolation, like a person in the snow looking in on a cosy fire through a frost-blurred window.
Although there is, of a fashion, a sort of ‘relationship’ between these two characters, this novel is most categorically not a romance. In fact, I’d call it an anti-romance. It is, however, about love. The rejection of love. The futility of love. The way those who love us expect us to change so that we are the versions of ourselves that they love. Of how we, as a society, put a crushing emphasis on the fairytale ending, be-all-and-end-all nature of love. When everyone thinks that Keiko is in love, they consider her a puzzle solved, a life complete. But this ‘love’ actually makes her incomplete. What this novel says, to me at least, is that we do not need romantic love to give us meaning. For Keiko, it is her job at the convenience store that does this.
If this is a book about love and society, it is also a book about stigma. For example, the stigma Keiko faces as an unmarried woman in her late thirties. Out of her three close friends, two are married with children, whilst the third is given a pass because of her high-flying career. Her sister, too, is married and recently a mother. Of her female co-workers, one is a young punk-rocker in a band, and the other is a married woman only ever referred to as Mrs. Izumi, her identity and her marital status being one and the same, it would seem. One of the book’s most unsettling scenes focusses on Keiko’s singlehood. She is at a barbecue with her ‘friends’, when talk turns to her relationship status. It ends with the group – including their husbands – cruelly ridiculing her and pointing out the otherness that Keiko had otherwise thought well-hidden. It is a truly crushing passage of the novel. Murata cuttingly highlights the infantalisation of unmarried women. Because she is single, Keiko is not treated as an adult, and is only accepted as an equal by the other women when Shiraha starts living with her. Even at work she begins to get treated differently; she says that the (male) manager “downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species”. Only is she seen as a woman when the shadow of a man casts her femininity into sharp relief.
She also faces stigma for her job as a lowly convenience store worker. Let me tell you, as someone who works in retail, I was giving her one hell of an amen! Her sister, her friends, even Shiraha (a coworker), constantly belittle her for her job. Keiko herself even realises this: “When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me.” Murata perfectly captures the snobbery towards retail workers, perhaps because she herself works part-time in a convenience store.
I only had a couple of minor gripes with this book. There were parts that felt a little bit too far-fetched for the book’s otherwise brilliantly stagnant realism. The speech, too, felt jarringly false at times – but I am happy to put this down to phrases and colloquialisms lost in translation.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is at once both comforting and disconcerting. It is like a big warm bear hug used to hide the knife being held behind your back. It draws you in, until you can hear the background buzz of the Smile Mart. Where this novella really shines, however, is in how much it makes you feel for Keiko. You rush through the pages with her like rice balls in the speedy hands of an expert sales assistant, desperate to find out the price on the receipt at the end. I eagerly await the translation of Murata’s other nine novels!
Read: Monday 30th July – Thursday 2nd August
Favourite quote: “I just want to spend my whole life doing nothing. For my whole life, until I die, I want to just breathe without anyone interfering in my life.”
Similar books: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.