Let’s start this by asking a simple question; why do we read books? Arguably the main purpose of it is to entertain ourselves, right? And arguably another reason is to be transported to exciting fictional worlds, right? When I picked up Convenience Store Woman, I asked myself how on earth I could be entertained by a 30-something year woman stuck at a dead-end job and why on earth would I want to be transported to the thrilling adventures of a simple corner shop. Surprisingly, that’s exactly why I bought this book; and I’m glad I did. Most authors can make theme park adventures, island shipwrecks, car chases and forbidden love stories exciting. But very few writers can entice you with the day to day life in a convenience store and make it into a page turner, and honestly that’s the beauty of it.
Sayaka Murata is a best-selling Japanese author, with Convenience Store Woman being the first of her novels to be translated to English. She has worked in a convenience store herself for nearly eighteen years, which explains the level of detail put into her descriptions. ““When I can’t sleep, I think about the transparent glass box that is still stirring with life even in the darkness of night. That pristine aquarium is still operating like clockwork. As I visualize the scene, the sounds of the store reverberate in my eardrums and lull me to sleep.” Now if that isn’t vivid storytelling, I don’t know what is.
Convenience Store Woman follows (you guessed it) a woman who works at a convenience store. Keiko Furukura has been working in the same corner shop for almost two decades and is an exemplary employee; never calls in sick, is always on time, and knows the layout of the store inside out. You would have thought that after all this time setting the standards exceptionally high, she would have been a multi-millionaire store owner by now. But that’s not exactly the case. Keiko is still working the cash register, she’s not yet married, and her biological clock keeps reminding her that she is running out of time to have a baby. Keiko is the proper embodiment of staying in your comfort zone. But contrary to what the traditional American dream and 99.9% of the population say, she teaches us that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But more on that later.
Day in and day out we follow Keiko as she salutes every customer with ‘irasshaimasé’ and a smile on her face. Her curiously weird way of interacting with her co-workers and copying their vocal intonations in order to fit immediately draws you into her quirky and loveable personality. Through a bit of corridor gossip, we soon learn that the convenience store is short staffed and will happily hire anyone who comes strolling in flopping around an averagely mediocre resume. Cue Shiraha.
Picture that co-worker you detest, the who you know is deliberately not punching their weight and consistently steals your Tupperware lunch. That’s Shiraha. He is a young (but not too young) rebel (but not too rebellious) slacker. A vanilla person, and frankly quite an annoying one at that. When asked by the boss why he fails to accomplish simple tasks around the store, he embarks on never-ending lectures about the misogynist Stone Age and how society has succumbed to regress itself to it as an excuse for his behaviour, all with an arrogant undertone. Boy was I tempted to skim through his dialogue lines, because in him lies the real flop of this short novel. Shiraha bring the otherwise quick, smooth-flowing pace of the story to a halt and makes everything a bit too repetitive.
However, it is undeniable that the relationship between him and Keiko is quite compelling, especially considering that it very accurately serves as an illustration to pinpoint a major issue in Japanese contemporary society today. Shiraha is expected to be rich, successful and accompanied by a beautiful woman. Keiko is expected to be that beautiful woman, married and with kids. Both yearn to escape the pressures of these strict social standards, but for very different reasons. Shiraha wants to become a full time slacker while Keiko needs to dive headfirst into her work and become a cog in the machine by offering her services as a worker.
Don’t we love a good fictional story that not-so-subtly tackles social issues? Oh yes, we do. Convenience Store Woman depicts the social pressures of being a single woman in your 30s in Japan. Last year, childbirth rates dropped below one million for the first time ever since records began back in 1899, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. As a response to this changing demographic, Japan’s Liberal Party MP Kato Kanji commented that women should have multiple children since single women are a burden to society. Surprisingly, he doesn’t stand alone behind this view. Japan’s government uses the term ‘lifelong singles’ as a label for those who haven’t married by the age of 50s, also implying their inferiority. Since when has the idea of having a stable full-time job, happily married with children become a synonym for social success and eventually happiness? Keiko doesn’t understand, and frankly, do we?
Being none other than Eleanor Oliphant’s long-lost sister, Keiko is a certified oddball puzzled not only by this absurd social norm, but also by basic human behaviour. Literary critics have even characterised her as a friendly alien, and this couldn’t be more fitting. Her misfit personality is utterly fascinating and Sayaka’s description of Keiko’s thoughts combined with her unsettling attempts at human interaction are exhilaratingly weird as much as they are compelling.
However, everything that goes on inside Keiko’s peculiar mind is a million times more interesting than anything she says out loud. In fact, the dialogue of this short novel has been often pinpointed by critics as one of its flaws because of its artificiality. Quite honestly, that is in fact the case. There are no hidden metaphors, no double-entendres or quick-fire snappy one-liners, but it fits really well with the story being told and its constructed world. It’s a simple story, with a simple premise, played out by simple characters. And I say that as a compliment.
At the end of the day, Keiko doesn’t understand why society at large has blindly and simultaneously agreed to be constricted by unreasonable and arbitrary rules. She questions them, and so should we. Without even realising it, she shows us that we should discard social norms, especially the ones we don’t agree with, even if that makes you an oddball. As one of the most famous quotes from the novel reads, Keiko doesn’t understand why her sister is “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.” This is what we can learn from Keiko. It’s very simple. Happiness comes first.