Convenience Store Woman
By Laurie Stone
Keiko has been told she is strange. She does not fit in. As a kid in the playground, her schoolmates find a dead bird and sniff sadly about the poor thing. Keiko says to her mother, “Let’s eat it! . . . Daddy likes yakitori, doesn’t he?” [p. 6] When two boys are fighting in school, Keiko ends the disturbance by taking a shovel to the boys’ heads, and when, strangely, a teacher bursts into hysterical tears, Keiko sorts her out by pulling down her knickers and her skirt. Problems solved, Keiko thinks, becoming a problem.
She goes silent. Better not to speak than say the wrong thing. She’s on permanent probation, a spy in the house of normal. At 18, she falls in love. Not with a person, with a convenience store in Tokyo, where she lives. She’s hired. The bar is low. There is no bar. The store provides a manual for behavior. Oh, joy! Also a time clock to punch and rituals and routines to observe. Hour after hour, day after day, she lives inside the music of the store: the pings of the cash register, the whoosh of doors opening and closing, the rattle of cellophane wrapers on the junk food and lunch boxes they sell, the code language exchanged with customers and coworkers—at once empty and consoling. Irasshaimasé, she calls out in welcome: smiling, alert, unknowable.
Eighteen years pass, and still she works at the part-time job, feeling no desire for love, sex, marriage, children, money, or other kinds of work. This does not depress her. It depresses everyone else she knows: her sister who is married and has a child, her parents, her co-workers, the friends whose lives she has drifted into. On days off, when she visits them, she feels poked at and seen as a freak. The pressure mounts, and just at this moment a man comes to work at the store. He feels the job demeans him, he shirks his tasks, he believes males should hunt and females stay home and gather fruit, he stalks female workers and customers in hopes of sex—really in hopes of marriage to a woman who will support him.
Keiko sees a use for him—not unlike her use for the dead bird. He is fired and winds up homeless. He smells bad and has debts, but she takes him in. He’s a man. She sleeps in the closet while he sleeps in the bath tub, her ill-tempered pet. When people discover the arrangement, they are thrilled for her. They know what he is, yet they are thrilled.
Convenience Store Woman subverts the status quo with the lowliest of settings and the most unlikely warrior. Cunning and seductive, it is the first novel by Sayaka Murata (38) to be translated into English—Ginny Tapley Takemori captures the author’s sly, wide-eyed wit. The book sold 660,000 copies in Japan. The Japanese are clearly literature whores. Murata earned the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award, and in a video of her at a press conference, she sits stunned, her hands folded neatly on her lap, listening more than speaking and saying yes more than any other word. Asked why she, herself, still works part time in a convenience store, she says she gathers material. To anyone who has entered the theater of service work, with its soothing routines and freeing masks, the truer answer might be: “Because I like it.”
Keiko narrates the story, and as with all great monologues, she turns the reader into her accomplice. “My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me,” she says. “I am currently made up of 30 percent Mrs. Izumi, 30 percent Sugawara, 20 percent the manager, and the rest absorbed from the past colleagues such as Sasaki, who left six months ago, and Okasaki, who was our supervisor until a year ago.” [p. 25] While other people see her as a cog in a directionless wheel, we see her as extradinary. She cannot lie, and we believe her. Candor makes her brave.
Murata delights in making the strange ordinary and the ordinary strange. In her story “A Clean Marriage,” published in Granta (2014), a man and woman marry in order not to have sex with each other. When they decide to have a child, they momentarily consider the obvious means to conception, only to reject it and feel “reassured by this evidence of shared revulsion.” In Convenience Store Woman, when Keiko hears her nephew crying in another room, she eyes a knife she has used to cut cake and thinks how easy it would be to end the noise. We see her point. She rises early each day so she can walk to the store through changing neighborhoods. “The sensation that the world is slowly dying feels good,” she confides. [P 39]
Convenience Store Woman joins the literature of refusal, along with Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (the clerk who “prefers not to”), Beckett’s minimal humans who dwell in trash bins and sand heaps, and Kafka’s hapless office workers, who try to remain invisible while being watched. Like Saga Norén, the gifted, autistic detective at the center of The Bridge, Keiko immitates other people’s facial expressions and phrases to blend in. Her narrative is a version of Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy,” in which a captured ape learns to behave like a human being.
To survive among his captors, Kafka’s ape acquires language, a transformation from which there is no return. Language ushers in the knowledge of how he is seen. In a sense, we all become human by learning the language of a group with the power to define us. I am not who you say I am, we think, as parts of ourselves go into hiding. Keiko says she takes “the utmost care not to cause the customer any discomfort by observing him or her too closely [p. 4],” but observation is precisely what she does in secret, just as, in secret, everyone devises their own private Keiko.
How to become free? Will Keiko surrender to social pressure and keep her demanding man-pet? You will have to read the book to find out. Murata’s comedy brilliantly reverses the notion we lose ourselves as cogs in a machine. In anonymity, Keiko slips the knot of convention. For her, the rescue is in the catastrophe.
Published in Women’s Review of Books Vol. 35 issue 4 July/August 2018 pp. 4-5.