"When I was in my early twenties it wasn’t unusual to be a freeter, so I didn’t really need to make excuses. But subsequently everyone started hooking up with society, either through employment or marriage, and I was the only one who hadn’t done either. (Kindle Locations 356-358).
|Convenience Store Woman,|
English in June, 2018.
The narrator of Convenience Store Woman
is a mid-thirtyish woman who has been a part-time worker in a convenience store called "Smile Mart" for 18 years. She's never "hooked up with society" -- she's always been a freeter.
This expressive Japanese term refers to "people who lack full-time employment or are unemployed" or who refuse the types of jobs society expects them to take (according to Wikipedia). It perfectly describes the narrator.
Laughter through tears
was a term for the methods of certain Yiddish writers who used humor to express a kind of existential horror at the plight of certain individuals in society. The human condition in present-day Japan couldn't be more different than the conditions in the pre-war Shtetls of Yiddish lit -- but this short novel seems to me to use the same kind of approach: it's both very funny and very tragic.
The narrator, Keiko Furukura, realizes that other humans have both social needs and social awareness that she can't share. Her earliest memory:
The time before I was reborn as a convenience store worker is somewhat unclear in my memory. I was born into a normal family and lovingly brought up in a normal suburban residential area. But everyone thought I was a rather strange child.
There was the time when I was in nursery school, for example, when I saw a dead bird in the park. It was small, a pretty blue, and must have been someone’s pet. It lay there with its neck twisted and eyes closed, and the other children were all standing around it crying. One girl started to ask: “What should we—” But before she could finish I snatched it up and ran over to the bench where my mother was chatting with the other mothers.
“What’s up, Keiko? Oh! A little bird … where did it come from I wonder?” she said gently, stroking my hair. “The poor thing. Shall we make a grave for it?”
“Let’s eat it!” I said.
“Daddy likes yakitori, doesn’t he? Let’s grill it and have it for dinner!” (Kindle Locations 78-87).
Utterly puzzled by the appalled reaction of her pre-school friends, their mothers, and her own mother, Keiko suppresses her idea, but still wonders: "My father was always saying how tasty yakitori was, and what was that if not grilled bird? There were lots more there in the park, so all we had to do was catch some and take them home. I couldn’t understand why should we bury the bird instead of eating it." (Kindle Locations 94-96).
Throughout her life she continues to suppress her own reactions and thoughts, relying on her sister to provide tips on what she should say to people whose lives are more socially conventional, people who form relationships and families, but her sister is also always mentioning that she hopes Keiko will be "cured." In order to fit in, Keiko tries to imitate the way that other people speak and dress, which never quite convinces anyone that she's normal, including herself. She sees herself as a foreign body
Keiko is highly aware of how she is judged, how friends and family are unable to see why she feels so comfortable as a "convenience store woman." They don't understand her commitment to a life of greeting customers, running the till, anticipating their demands, and keeping products ready and available for sale. Over time, other workers come and leave the store, but she stays. Above all, she has to cope with how they view her.
The result of her clueless efforts is highly amusing -- but disturbing. She is in some way one with her store, loving the way it's lit up at night, and adapting to a constantly changing series of managers and other employees. Like much humor, it's hard to tell just what makes this book funny, but there it is:
For breakfast I eat convenience store bread, for lunch I eat convenience store rice balls with something from the hot-food cabinet, and after work I’m often so tired I just buy something from the store and take it home for dinner. I drink about half the bottle of water while I’m at work, then put it in my ecobag and take it home with me to finish at night. When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine. (Kindle Locations 229-233).
The plot of the novel involves Keiko's effort to seem normal. To do so, she decides to take in a man, who is even more of a social misfit than she is. Her motive is to try to make her friends, relatives, and co-workers more accepting of her life, but still, she just doesn't get it. Quite funny scenes ensue, as her stray (she explicitly compares him to a pet) begins an isolated life lived mostly in her bathtub, where he sleeps at night and spends his days with his phone. Keiko begins to take showers at a public bath down the street. She brings his meals to the bath tub: often expired food or dented cans from the convenience store. Just the presence of this loser succeeds in making the others in her life see her as more normal -- and gives her some insight into how alienated she really is!
Ultimately, Keiko summarizes her life: “More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker. Even if that means I’m abnormal and can’t make a living and drop down dead, I can’t escape that fact. My very cells exist for the convenience store.”(Kindle Locations 1547-1549).
Why did I read this book? Maybe because the New York Times reviewer
called it "a small, elegant and deadpan novel." Or because the New Yorker reviewer
said "If Keiko comes off as frightening and robotic, so does the entire universe in which her story unfurls." Or because the Guardian reviewer
said "Murata’s gloriously nutty deadpan prose and even more nuttily likable narrator are irresistible." Maybe you would like it too!