In our dark late-capitalist hypnosis, convenience might carry a whiff of moral virtue. It suggests thrift, accommodation, helpfulness. Women—the “nice lady” behind the counter, the diligent wife—provide convenience. So do Japan’s convenience stores, which resemble Walmarts or Rite Aids, except that customers can also buy clothes and pay their gas and electric bills; in theory, these stores are staffed by pliable employees, sweetly attuned to consumer needs. You may not even notice the convenience-store worker until she is in front of you, enthusiastically bagging your purchases.
“Convenience Store Woman,” a novel by the best-selling Japanese author Sayaka Murata, is the first of her ten novels to be translated into English. The book centers on a thirty-six-year-old woman named Keiko Furukura, an oddball who is endlessly puzzled by human behavior. She describes the condescension she experiences at the hands of men in her social circle as “fascinating.” She mimics her co-workers’ vocal inflections in order to fit in. She is blithely indifferent to sex or dating, and uninterested in leaving her dead-end job at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, a “transparent glass box” in a pristine and anonymous business district. (The author herself worked at a convenience store for nearly eighteen years.) For the most part, her manner is that of a friendly alien scientist, but, at times, she swerves toward the psychopathic. Keiko occasionally endorses utilitarian violence: as a girl, she broke up a schoolyard fight by hitting one of her classmates over the head with a spade, and could not understand why her teachers were angry—after all, they’d said they wished the fight to end. And, when her sister Mami despairs that her baby won’t stop crying, Keiko idly marvels that no one has thought to stab it with a small knife. But Keiko finds purpose and acceptance at the Smile Mart, where she receives a uniform and a manual that outlines exactly how she is supposed to conduct herself, down to the scripted phrases approved for customer interactions. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” Keiko realizes. The novel borrows from Gothic romance, in its pairing of the human and the alluringly, dangerously not. It is a love story, in other words, about a misfit and a store.
Or is horror the more accurate genre? Keiko’s ability to anticipate shoppers’ desires—and to efface herself—seems at once uncanny and depraved, implying a lack of soul. She believes that she can “hear the store’s voice telling what it wanted, how it wanted to be. I understood it perfectly.” What might read as “competence porn,” the rare kind that focusses on menial, hourly labor, here feels more like a portrait of candy-colored subservience, or even self-immolation. In Keiko’s case, a strange and alienating job suits a strange and alienated person. “I am one of those cogs, going round and round,” she chirps. “I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.”
One eerie achievement of “Convenience Store Woman” is that the reader is never entirely sure how to think about Keiko. Is she monstrous? Brave and eccentric? For all the creepiness of her cheerful obedience to the manual, she is, at least, choosing a different kind of conformity than the rest of society, which insists that she marry and pursue a conventional career path. Writing in the Times, Motoko Rich suggested that Keiko embodies a demographic anxiety in Japan, which has been experiencing falling marriage rates and low birth rates for years. Articles have fretted over celibacy syndrome: an aversion, among Japanese young people, to sex and romance. The past decade has also seen a rise in hikikomori, men who withdraw from the public sphere and retreat into their homes, where they play video games, sleep, or stare at the ceiling. Keiko’s self-renunciations reveal the book to be a kind of grim post-capitalist reverie: she is an anti-Bartleby, abandoning any shred of identity outside of her work.
Keiko’s counterpart in the novel is a man named Shiraha, an unreformed misogynist who gets fired from the Smile Mart because he refuses to carry out any of his tasks. Pressured by his own friends and family to find a girlfriend, Shiraha accepts Keiko’s offer to move in with her. He sleeps in the bathtub and lazes about. Keiko regards him as a pet and refers to his meals as “feeding time.” Shiraha is prone to gaseous lectures about the Stone Age, the legacy of which remains intact, he argues: “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” Like Keiko, Shiraha yearns to escape the homogenizing pressures of Japanese society; but if her solution is to lose herself in service, his is to succumb to uselessness, entitlement, and solipsism. When he complains, about his convenience-store gig, that “this sort of work isn’t suited to men,” Keiko responds, “Shiraha, we’re in the twenty-first century! Here in the convenience store we’re not men and women. We’re all store workers.”
Murata’s flattened prose has a bodega-after-11-p.m. quality: it feels bathed in garish, fluorescent light. If Keiko comes off as frightening and robotic, so does the entire universe in which her story unfurls. The dialogue is artificial, piped in from a winking facsimile of the real world, in which characters explicitly state what readers are meant to draw from the scenes they are reading, and new plot developments are narrated in real time: “ ‘Well done, Miss Furukura,’ the manager told me. ‘That was perfect! You kept your calm, even though it was your first time on the till. Good job, keep it up. Oh look, the next customer!’ ”
But, for all the disturbance and oddity in “Convenience Store Woman,” the book dares the reader to interpret it as a happy story about a woman who has managed to craft her own “good life.” “I could think of the me in the (store) window as a being with meaning,” Keiko reflects, cocking an ear to the trancelike “music reverberating on the other side of the glass.” Murata does not judge her protagonist’s path to fulfillment, nor does she spend too much time contemplating what it might mean to find transcendence in such work. Instead, she admires Keiko’s quirk and lively boldness. To second-guess this woman would be to fall into her sister’s trap: Mami 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.” It may make readers anxious, but the book itself is tranquil—dreamy, even—rooting for its employee-store romance from the bottom of its synthetic heart.