This is one of those strange little books that I found reaffirmed my belief in the idea of being true to yourself. There are a lot of platitudes about that concept, mostly Disney-fied or Rom-Comish in execution, and those platitudes always ring hollow to me. They seem sacharine, or manipulative, or frustratingly narrow in execution. What Sayaka Murata offers in Convenience Store Woman is a character so out of synch with the rest of her society, but so in synch with the world of her store, that you can’t help but appreciate and marvel at it.
Keiko Fukuwara is different. If she was from anywhere other than Japan, she’d probably be diagnosed as neurologically atypical, but in a society obsessed with conformism she’s just dubbed broken. People can’t understand her social limitations, her need to imitate others behavior, her refusal to get married, total lack of interest in sex and her absolute devotion to the simple convenience store she’s worked at for 18 years. While others think her job is lowly work that she should move on from, she thinks its the best thing that ever happened to her because all the customs, from what to wear to how to speak and when to do things, are perfectly spelled out for her. When a new employee starts to work there, specifically because he’s looking for a wife, Keiko’s life starts to change and she begins to experiment with being “normal”.
At the core of this book Murata is asking us to question what an individual should sacrifice to for the bigger whole, and the idea that something low paying or esteemed should be looked down on. She shows the virtues of a simple life well-lived in devotion, and as Keiko moves away from what she actually wants and towards what others want for her, your heart breaks. There’s something beautiful in her devotion to her job, and I related to how she just wanted to do her work and not be judged for it being menial task labor. In Keiko, we see the nobility in doing a job capably and proudly, and the intrinsic worth in that.
There are some delightful eccentricities to this book too. Keiko describes the meals she makes for someone as his “feed” and delivers her perspective bluntly. Some of the characters she meets may seem poorly rendered, but it’s only because Murata is sticking to Keiko’s perspective and what limited understanding she has of other people’s social and facial cues.
I hope we start getting more Murata translations after this one, as I’d love to read more from her.