Archive for the ‘Sayaka Murata’ Category

Convenience Store Woman

March 10, 2019

All literature, to some extent, answers the question of how should we live our lives, but Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, addresses it more directly than most novels. Its narrator, Keiko Furukura, admits “everyone thought I was a rather strange child” relaying stories which reveal a literal interpretation of the wishes of those around her, and a dramatic way of achieving them, when very young. She quickly learns that her only hope of not being seen as unusual lies in copying the behaviour of others:

“I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.”

She acquires her job in a convenience store in much the same way:

“I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.”

As the novel opens Keiko has been working at the convenience store for eighteen years. The job, she explains, is “the only way I can be a normal person.” She details the strategies she uses in order to fit in, copying the behaviour, habits and clothing of those she works with until she is able to state:

“My present self is formed almost completely of those around me.”

She even makes sure to get angry at the same things as everyone else as she notices this makes them happy.

Then life she has created for herself is disrupted with the arrival of Shiraha who is in many ways her antithesis, as is indicated on his first appearance by the fact that the store uniform does not fit him. He has little interest in doing the job well, arriving late and making disparaging remarks about the other staff and the manager:

“He really does seem useless… The way he talks the job down, saying it’s only a convenience store.”

It’s no surprise when he gets dismissed, but it is a surprise when, finding him loitering outside the store, Keiko first invites him for coffee, and then to move in with her. Despite their very different characters, she sees Shiraha as like herself, not only because he doesn’t fit in, but because he adopts a persona to disguise this fact:

“He really was just like me, uttering words that sounded human when really he wasn’t saying anything at all.”

Her motivation for allowing him to live in her apartment is that both of them will appear more ‘normal’. “These past two weeks,” she tells us, “I’d been asked fourteen times why I wasn’t married.” Her sister is delighted by the news (“She might just as well have been saying I was ‘cured’.”) even though she is far from impressed with Shihara:

“She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.”

Though the social expectations of Japan and the UK are not identical, the novel’s success can be attributed to the stubborn refusal of both societies to accept difference despite superficially embracing diversity. Shihara’s claim that:

“Our society doesn’t allow foreign objects. I’ve always suffered because of that.”

falls on sympathetic ears despite his unsympathetic character. The social norms expected of Shiraha and Keiko relate to both marital status and employment: ‘failing’ in one is acceptable, but not in both. It is particularly galling that Keiko has created a life for herself with which she is entirely satisfied, but must contend with the satisfaction of others:

“I made it known among old friends that I have certain health issues that make it more convenient for me to have a part-time job.”

Reading Convenience Store Woman it seemed obvious to question whether Keiko might be autistic, or, more properly, on the autistic spectrum. This possibility seems to have been excluded by many reviewers, the worst offender I encountered being Dwight Garner in the New York Times who wonders, “How did she get this way?”, questions how “deranged” she might be, and compares her to Norman Bates. Perhaps he was simply going out of his way to make the Murata’s point for her.

Convenience Store Woman is an awkward novel, with characters it would be awkward to meet, but the awkward questions it asks are also vital ones.

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