Quirky Books: Why you should Definitely Read 'Convenience Store Woman' by Sayaka Murata
Welcome! I am beginning a series of blog posts centering around 'quirky' books - shortish books about odd material, strange characters, non-linear storytelling or just the outright bizarre. Just to note, I am a boring person, so my definition of bizarre may be woefully parochial - my apologies.
"More than a person, I'm a convenience store worker."
There is a fairly high chance you won't like this book, despite its glowing reviews. The reaction of my group of friends upon reading it several years ago was one of confusion. Are we meant to feel sorry for Keiko Furukura, the main character? Angry? Happy that she's carved a (strange) niche for herself at The Smile Mart convenience store? None of us could decide what the point of the novel was. Was it a scathing criticism of the dehumanising nature of capitalism, or of the rigid conformity of Japanese work culture? Was it in fact none of those things, and simply an off-beat tale of one woman's love for her place of work?
Keiko is the face behind the smiling shop worker, a job that is given much more training in Japan than in the West and demands a much higher standard of care. No un-ironed uniforms or jewelry. Gloves worn when handling money or hot food. An enthusiastic greeting whenever a customer enters the store.
Keiko seems to revel in these stipulations, and it's almost touching to see her take her role with the seriousness we'd expect of a barrister or surgeon. But that is the first challenge of the book - the above roles are undoubtedly more important (in terms of lives impacted) than being behind a till. Should Keiko really be mocked for taking her job seriously just because it isn't high earning or seen as respectable? Yet she is - her co-workers react with confusion, her manager is threatened by her competence, and even I myself was left scratching my head thinking "but why - why do you care so much?" Keiko is proud that she lives, breathes and eats The Smile Mart - she'll often arrive early for breakfast in the back room, she'll grab a sandwich for lunch, and if it's late she'll take something home to eat. The latter she is particularly proud of, as it means she is part of the store even when she's at home. When she cannot sleep, she closes her eyes and imagines the store still there, still buzzing, still familiar and ready to greet her the next day.
The store itself is described in lurid, loving detail that balances the obvious affection Keiko holds for it with the gratingly mundane. Anyone familiar with retail work will be dutifully reminded of such wonders as stock rotation and replenishment. Items are swapped out and put on sale depending on stock levels and demand. Stock changes with the seasons, and must be laid out appropriately. Hot weather? More ice lollies. Cold weather? Order more sandwiches. Rain forecast? Dust off those umbrellas and plonk them by the door. The store could almost be classed as its own character, such is the level of detail afforded to it. More than that, it offers Keiko a sense of purpose and a warm, if slightly clinical, embrace. Rather than being the backdrop of her life against education, family, friends, drama or grief, it is her life.
"My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me. I am currently made up of 30 percent Ms. Izumi, 30 percent Sugawara, 20 percent the manager, and the rest absorbed from past colleagues such as Sasaki, who left six months ago, and Okasaki, who was our supervisor until a year ago."
Although the convenience store is safe and predictable, Keiko herself is an enigma. One friend described her as "a little bit sad," and it's easy, if not entirely charitable, to see why. Keiko is not sympathetic; her actions are rooted so deeply in her role and the store that it's sometimes difficult to see her as a real person and not a prop to describe the esoteric details of stock control. And Keiko is perfectly happy with that. Her childhood was fraught with misunderstanding - people didn't get her and she didn't get them. The simplest of questions were met with reticence and confusion by the adults in her life, and various attempts to relate to her peers ended in chaos. Keiko appears to show classic signs of high-functioning autism - but as a young girl, like so many others across the globe, she was simply treated as a little bit strange and encouraged to integrate as best she could. What started as affection by her parents at their odd-but-endearing daughter turns to confusion and simmering resentment as she passes milestone after milestone, still working at the convenience store.
Murata never reveals if this diagnosis is correct, perhaps to mirror the low diagnosis rates in girls or maybe as a quiet challenge to the rest of us - sometimes people are just different from the norm without requiring a formal diagnosis. Either way, Keiko craves order and instructions, and the convenience store fulfills this with rational, precise predictability . Her workplace instructions have an underlying, ironclad reason for why they are performed, rather than the often arbitrary rules at school. Even so, Keiko is aware that others feel disquiet at her being a convenience store worker in her 30's; her sister gives her a barrage of excuses to give others to explain her job situation, such as poor health, frailty and caring responsibilities.
"When you work at 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. And as I do so I always think: that's what a human is."
So yes, you should definitely read Convenience Store Woman, if only to marvel at Murata's ability to turn the mundane into the (almost) magical. The magic, however, is tinged with sadness - Keiko prides herself on being a cog in the machine, but it's clear that working at the convenience store was, well, a matter of convenience. It appeared at the right place at the right time (when she was a student), met every single one of her needs and continues meeting them. She gains pride, and a sense of purpose, from performing her job correctly.
Perhaps supported more during her upbringing, Keiko would go on to do bigger, better things and put her obvious love for order and careful repetition in more important work. But isn't that our own understanding of late-stage capitalism speaking - that talent is a resource that should be applied to the most appropriate (often profitable) function for maximum efficiency?
Perhaps there is joy in performing well, even in the most mundane of tasks, which I think was what Murata was trying to get at, behind the talk of safe, fluorescent lights. Maybe we all need to be a bit more Keiko.