Some Thoughts on Convenience Store Woman
You have to play the game.
Only the very rich or the very lucky get away with not having to play the game. Nobody else gets a choice. The game has no rules and no clear win condition, but it is a game and you have to play to play it all the same, because you are a social animal borne from a long line of animals that succeeded at being social by default, and you have to interact with the other animals.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is hands down the best depiction of alienation and weirdness that I have ever read. It beats the absolute shit out of The Catcher in the Rye which I think is the reference work for the “out of step” novel. Holden is really fucking whiny and his life is only gonna get harder as he gets actual adult problems and you know that he’s in an incredibly privileged position and all he has to do is give it a go to live a full and happy life. I think it is much easier to give a shit about a protagonist who actually tries and Keiko, bless her, tries her damnedest.
Keiko knows she doesn’t fit in, but she also knows that she has to disguise it as best she can to get by, and anyone on the more awkward end of the scale will find the first fifty odd pages, where we learn Keiko’s backstory, to be page after page of “it me”. Her limited understanding of social graces gets her into a lot of trouble, and she learns to withdraw to make things easier for herself and others. The convenience store begins as a whim to try and get her out of her shell and morphs into a part of her, or she morphs into a part of it, it depends how you feel.
I do mean morph literally. One of the main conceits is that Keiko, living as she does from food and drink purchased exclusively in the convenience store that she works, is made up of the store, has become a part of the store. This, along with all her personal feelings centering not around herself and her own desires, but how it will impact her fitness to work in the store, make it readable as an anti-work novel. It’d be easy to see this novel as dystopic; in the 21st century even the lowliest of jobs is intensely regulated and bleeds into the personal life of the employee, but I think that’d miss the point. Keiko benefits immensely from the structure and the clearly defined rules of the environment she’s found. It is an order of things where she understands her place and is valued for her contribution. It’s the apotheosis of the idea that a part time job is edifying for a young person. The thing that stands out to me as the starkest criticism of wage work is that Keiko has spent half her life at the convenience store, knows more about it than anyone, and hasn’t been given a shot at the permanent managers post even while four or five different managers come and go and Keiko has already demonstrated she could do the job. It reminded me of this news story.
There are small games and there is the big game that encompasses all of them, and it is rarely considered polite to keep beating the same easy game you have already more than mastered (unless you’re a speedrunner, but that’s by the by). The drama in the novel comes from Keiko’s family and friends expecting her to have moved on; to have got a better job (maybe that promotion), to have found a romantic partner, to have demonstrated ambition. Keiko is basically asexual, but she can’t go telling her parents that. Introducing a scummy man as a contrast is a delightful way of highlighting just what she isn’t missing out on. You know a guy like Shiraha, or you’ve read about them on the news. He mostly spouts big, intellectual-sounding phrases that are as deep as a spill on aisle five and it wouldn’t surprise you if they were copied and pasted from r/incel. Keiko is quick to see the mutual advantage in at least presenting herself as being in a relationship with him but he also serves to highlight the fact that Keiko is fine on her own.
It becomes clearer and clearer that Shiraha would be difficult to control for long, not to mention being disagreeable to live with, and it is with triumph that Keiko pretty much dumps him for her convenience store. You could read it as sad that her station in life is such a relatively low one, but aren’t we told to try and find happiness with what we have? Aren’t we told to make the best of it? Keiko is an extreme example of finding joy in everyday life and in being happy where you are. Honestly, you’re happy for her. She knows what she likes, where she fits in, and is going to keep doing it. Good for her.
I can’t comment on the translation, but there was nothing that jarred. This is a weird little novel written in a weird, hypnotic style that reflects the inner life of the protagonist. It is short and smooth with a chewiness that is not readily apparent but will keep you thinking about it long after the automatic doors have closed behind you.