Sayaka Murata "Convenience Store Woman"
Fiction – Hardcover; Grove Press, 2018; 163 pages.
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
A Heartwarming, quirky, look inside a hidden world....
This novel is quiet. What I mean is, it resonated with me in a soft, subtle way. The Convenience Store Woman is a true to life character. Keiko, who takes a job at Smile Mart, describes her existence in a detached style but somehow draws us in to her way of seeing the world.
But she is weird, make no mistake. What’s her deal? So many questions. Is she autistic? Is she just removed? Is it just her personality? I have grown to like these sorts of characters because they allow me in to their mind, which forces me to accept them as they are. I think that’s a kind of learning for the reader.
She sees the world in facts and details. The way she speaks is often robotic, devoid of feeling. The way she interprets events is literal, and therefore the sentimentality of the world does not compute. I get it. Why should a bunch of five-year-olds hold a funeral for a little dead bird. Holding a barbeque makes more sense. Meat is food. Bird is meat. Do the math people.
This is why a job at a convenience store is perfect. Repetitive, organized, routine, transactional. And it serves a purpose.
This novel might be considered quirky, but our main character isn’t quirky at all. That suggests something affected, deliberate, like wearing a certain hairstyle so that people make certain assumptions of you. Goth black, pink highlights, or (date-ing myself) the “Rachel”. No, in fact Keiko does nothing at all to “present” herself to the world, to say, ‘Hey, look at all these clues, that’s the real me.’ With Keiko, there’s no mask.
Basically, she is a person with soft edges on a hard shell. In other words, if you met someone like her in real life, she would seem plain and altogether inaccessible. But through this book, we are drawn inside with understanding. That is a true form of communication. I think it’s very Japanese.
The only reason she knows she is different is because of how other’s react.
The mystery: who is she, really, deep down? This is the question she asks herself, and she takes us along on this journey of discovery.
“The time before I was reborn as a convenience store worker is unclear in my memory.”
This rebirth, what is it? How does it happen? What does it mean? She can’t mean actual reincarnation, can she? No, it’s not that kind of book. But in a way, it is a real rebirth.
These moments she refers to are the life-changing transitions that come about by following your gut, or by realizing you must change your behaviour for the sake of others. These are the proverbial forks in the road. Paths not taken. That kind of thing.
Sometimes it seems so drastic that you feel like a different person. But you do it anyway.
Keiko’s new world, though mundane, is also a hidden world of fine detail, self-soothing routine. In Tokyo, the convenience store is much more than a place to buy cigarettes, or umbrellas when you get caught in the rain. If you look closely, as Keiko teaches us to do, it is an oasis for many who are marginalized in society. Or better yet, it is a living organism unto itself, one that needs tending in order to stay alive. Some people keep house plants. Keiko serves the store. To each her own, right?
I’m really not trying to elevate anything for the sake of a review or my own style, but I think it’s true that the convenience store is a cornerstone of the urban existence. But that’s not what this book is about. In fact, it might be the opposite.
To others, Keiko is strange. If you meet someone like her in your own life, you understand how she could still be single at 50, and are surprised when they casually drop the name of a boyfriend or girlfriend in everyday conversation. You’re like, “What?! When did that happen!?”
But, as often in life, like finds like. So yes, there is a boy. And yes, Keiko has something, somewhere inside, that is drawn to him. Maybe a kindred.
“He really was just like me, uttering words that sounded human when he really wasn’t saying anything at all.”
What I learned from Keiko is to take life for what it is. Take people for who they are. See worth and value in everyone. More importantly, learn to see people for who they are, not who you want them to be. People always show themselves anyway, in the end.
Like many Japanese themes, it is equally important to pause and look at things from different sides. A good Japanese novel, or any novel for that matter, creates these opportunities. Don’t just see people for who they are, but also show yourself directly and truthfully too. That way, you can be seen, and you will be understood. And there is something extraordinarily liberating in that.
Keiko isn’t a nobody. She isn’t marginalized. And she should not be pitied. She has something to contribute and she is exactly where she needs to be.