Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata

 

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Convenience Store Woman made a bit of a sensation when the English translation was released a couple of years ago, and what was said about it was sufficiently intriguing that when I saw it in a bookshop the other day I promptly bought it. This is the story, told in the first person, of a woman, Keiko Furukura, who aspires to be ‘normal’, is never sure of the rules, but thinks that she has found a niche where she won’t be noticeable, working in a convenience store, for 18 years from when she was 18 years old.

I’m a bit dubious about writers using the voice of someone ‘on the spectrum’ to query the way unspoken rules govern social interaction, basically by showing us the ridiculousness of ‘working to rule’. But I think Murata has a serious purpose, and carries it out quite well. We of course have to decide whether what the author says about rules in her, Japanese society apply more generally. Clive James in his unlamented TV show mocked Japanese for being different, and it would be interesting to know how much self-mockery the author intended in her description of start-of-shift rituals, practising greetings and sales spiels (and yes, I’ve been a trainee Encyclopedia Britannica door-to-door salesman, and the rituals were not much different).

The novella, charts a month or so in Keiko’s life when she is made to realise that she is not as normal-seeming as she had thought. The catalyst for this realisation is a meeting of her girlfriends, and I must say the most unlikely aspect of this story was that Keiko kept up with her married school friends., and that they chose to keep up with her.

Keiko’s younger sister has given Keiko some stock responses to questions about why she is unmarried, why she continues after all these years in her student job as a part-time convenience store worker. She cites fragile health, but for once a friend’s husband calls bullshit

He stared at me as though I were some kind of alien. “What, you never …? I mean, if finding a job is so hard, then at least you should get married. Look, these days there are always things like online marriage sites, you know,” he spluttered….

The next thing I knew, just like that time in elementary school, they all turned their backs on me and started edging away, staring curiously at me over their shoulders as though contemplating some ghastly life form. Oh, I thought absently, I’ve become a foreign object.

Keiko loves the structured environment of the convenience store. There are rules, rules which she can see the purpose for, there’s a manual for heaven’s sake. She eats to be fit to work. Goes to bed early. Feels the rhythms of the store even when she’s away. She dreams the store. But if her friends had never accepted her ‘normalcy’ then she must try something new.

Her current store manager, store manager #8, has trouble retaining staff. He hires a misfit, Shiraha, a guy about Keiko’s age who should have been a salaryman years ago, who kicks against the rules, comes late, doesn’t restack the shelves with product in orderly rows, complains constantly

“Everyone here is a stupid loser. It’s the same in any convenience store. You’ll only find housewives who can’t get by on their husband’s salary, job-hoppers without plans for the future, and the crappiest students who can’t get better jobs like being a home tutor. Or foreigners who send money home. All losers.”

He wants a wife, a wife with money who will enable him to stay home and set up an on-line business. As is the way with all these jobs, he doesn’t get the sack, he’s just given zero hours. One night Keiko sees him hanging around outside the store and on the spur of the moment she proposes that he come home with her. Her sister, her parents, her friends, her workmates are ecstatic, Keiko is normal after all, she’s living with a guy.

In the one room apartment Keiko and Shiraha barely interact. He sleeps on a futon in the bath – so that they must use the public coin-operated shower – watches movies on his tablet, she feeds him boiled veg and rice. He never goes out and she is mostly at work. He wants her to get a real job. She quits the store!

At uni I studied existentialism, I read lots of Sartre, I regarded myself as a existentialist. Murata seems to me to be asking the question: if we act a role are we in bad faith? Sartre says yes. But I think Murata is saying that Keiko constantly questions the role that she knows she is playing, that is, she is in good faith. Convenience Store Woman starts slowly but quickly becomes a thoughtful, yes sometimes funny, but always rivetting read.

 

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman, first pub. in Japanese, 2016. English ed., Granta, London, 2018. Translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Kim at Reading Matters (here) enjoyed it too, for different reasons probably. Melanie at Grab The Lapels (here) was troubled by CSW and found Shiraha’s relationship with Keiko abusive. I think Keiko knowingly used Shiraha, but what would be the fun in always being in agreement.

 

 

14 thoughts on “Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata

  1. Another difference is that I listened to the audiobook, and Shiraha always sounded menacing. I liked Keiko’s character and even related to her attitude a great deal. But once we get to the part where Shiraha says he won’t “fornicate” with Keiko and kept heaping on the verbal assault, I lost my sense of humor.

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    • I saw that differently, and let’s hope that’s not just a guy thing (on my part). I was sorry that he spoke that way, because I was wondering how Keiko would react to intimacy and sex. But I think the author was trying to set up a situation where, though Keiko’s life appeared to have changed, nothing actually had. And I think that was Keiko’s intention too – to give the appearance without the actuality. I found Shiraha had as many problems as Keiko and his unrealistic dreams about partnering were a symptom of that. In fact, I think the author was saying that both Keiko and Shiraha were symptoms of an unhealthy society.

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  2. I have read so many reviews of this one now, I feel as if I’ve already read the book.
    But I still haven’t. For me, it’s one of those where I-might-if-I see-it-at-the-library books.

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  3. I didn’t mind it being short. I think our various discussions reveal just how much the author packed into a small space. To follow on from your comment stream, Keiko does treat Shiraha like a dog, and that’s a) because she only needs the appearance of a guy in her life, and b) because he doesn’t have much more to offer. In fact there’s an element of sadness towards the end because if he had offered more she might have accepted more.

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  4. Oh, now see, I loved this book (and reviewed it too, last year). Perhaps it’s because I love Japanese literature and I love Japan. I think it’s fundamentally a commentary (and satire) on the drive to homogeneity in Japan. We are supposed, I believe, to not like Shiraha – so I don’t quite understand Melanie’s comment that she lost her sense of humour about him and that that’s somehow a negative for the book. The way I saw it is that Keiko is a genuinely different person who wants to be allowed to live the life that suits her without having to live up to some preconceived notion about life, whereas Shiraha, is a lazy, self-centred person who wants the easy life and saw Keiko as a way to get it. The suggestion then is that there’s not buying into the rules and not buying into the rules, if you know what I mean! (This is off the top of my head and hope it accords with what I wrote in my review!! Whatever, this is what I recollect now that it was about.)

    I also don’t think Keiko is playing a role when she works in the Convenience Store but she would be if she tried to live the way the others want her to, such as when she was pretending to be in a relationship with Shiraha.

    I agree that it is riveting and funny, while also sad.

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    • Sue, I’m driving and can’t give your excellent comment the response it deserves. Let me leap though to Melanie’s defence. We all read differently and I can see how Shiraha could be seen as offensive, rather than as a stick figure around whom Keiko constructs a different image of herself. As someone who is not naturally working class, I have a great deal of sympathy with Keiko’s attempts to follow the rules.

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      • Haha good for you Bill though I’m sure she can defend herself. What I meant was that he’s supposed to be seen as offensive so I didn’t quite understand Melanie’s point. I hope she responds.

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