Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018)

Keiko Furukura was never like other people. When she saw other kids get into a fight on the playground she knew it should be stopped, so she grabbed a shovel and smacked one of the kids. When she found a dead kitten, she asked her mother if they would be eating it. She didn't seem to have the same feelings as other people and knew they thought there was something wrong with her. At the age of 18 she saw that a local convenience store was hiring and got a job. The training was very detailed and even included phrases they were supposed to use, and directives about how to behave. Keiko was relieved because now she knew exactly what to do to fit in.

Flash forward 18 years and she is now 36. She's still working part-time at the convenience store and it is pretty much her life. She's completely satisfied, but also aware that other people don't understand why she doesn't have a career or a boyfriend. She's never been interested in relationships, but when she meets another outsider she wonders if the appearance of a relationship would help her socially. Maybe everyone would stop asking about her dating life and questioning how she lives her life.

A lot of the appeal of the book for me was the unusual main character and the everyday details of her job. I kind of love detailed descriptions of everyday lives, especially when it comes to jobs that aren't office jobs (see also: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan.) She describes her tasks, such as arranging rice balls in a display case, and it all feels very comforting in its order. Keiko is a woman of routine, and I enjoyed the satisfaction she got from her job and her simple life.

But she was definitely playing a part. The specific directives of her job - how to greet and interact with customers - were supplemented by characters she took from her coworkers. She would often note that she was adopting another person's voice or tone in a given situation. In this way she attempted to fit in as normal. She says, "My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me." I tend to like unlikeable protagonists and while I don't quite consider her one, she's definitely not exactly likable and she's an outsider, and I don't actually understand her. Although we get the details of her life and some of her thoughts, I didn't feel like I had access to everything. Or rather, her inner workings weren't expounded on enough to really understand her. Which is fine - I didn't feel like it was lacking because it wasn't that kind of a book.

I wish I got a more complete picture of her life though. Her job is part-time, but I don't know what she did the rest of the time. It sounded like she worked from morning until evening, because it said she would often just bring something home from the store for dinner because she was too tired to do anything else. I also wondered how she still had friends, given that nobody really understood her and she wasn't exactly one to have fun. She would show up at gatherings because she was expected, but it always seemed very awkward. They would question her life choices and assume she must be desperate to find a husband, and she was ask why she couldn't go on as she was, and they would get exasperated. Often they just made assumptions and she would let them think what they wanted. It doesn't seem like there were very strong friendship bonds.

Still, I found it unique and refreshing. At 163 pages it's hardly an investment of time and I read the entire book in one (albeit lazy) day. I would say my time was well spent.

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