For a novelist, the anomie imposed by the modern condition — a world of alienated, objectified, neoliberal subjects — is a creative source of immense potential. Despite appearances, Sayaka Murata opts instead to tackle a deeper, universal problem: the anomie imposed by humanity’s social condition.
Convenience Store Woman hints at the contemporary, but its theme is eternal. Its protagonist, Keiko Furukura, has never fit in. She does the things she thinks seem normal, and this excludes her from the communion of human society, in which normal is neither natural nor rational but a construction of dubious logic, upheld by mutual consent (or more properly, the mutual fear of being expelled from the social collective).
Keiko’s difference, her honest engagement with the world, resulted in a traumatic childhood in which everyone concentrated on making her normal, forcing her to fit in with society, “curing” her of an ailment that no one could clearly describe to her. Her sole connection with the human world is her younger sister, who bridges the gap by explaining to her why people find her behaviour odd, and advises her on how to act so as to avoid their scrutiny or approbation. Murata’s tone is whimsical and humorous as she sets up her narrative, but there’s a deadly serious undertone to the work.
After high school Keiko winds up employed at a convenience store: a transitional career for most, but for her it’s all she could ever want. It’s a world with easily understood rules, in which her daily engagement with humanity falls into easily comprehensible patterns. The Japanese convenience store, like most Japanese institutions, operates according to clearly delineated rules: certain stock phrases (greetings, offers to help, ritualized thanks) and routinized tasks (restocking shelves, preparing products, assisting customers). For Keiko, it’s everything she could ask for, and so she spends 18 years immersed in it. She cannot understand why her friends, family and even co-workers would think she would ever want anything different than to work at a convenience store, and with the aid of her sister develops excuses to divert their unwanted critiques of her life.
Everything is thrown awry, however, when she meets Shiraha, a briefly-employed co-worker who quite starkly does not fit in. His surly, rebellious attitude quickly gets him fired, but as she gets to know him it becomes clear that what initially appears to be unconventionally hostile behaviour is actually rooted in a shared inability to fit in. Shiraha is a disgusting protagonist: a misogynistic, incel-type of reject who doesn’t understand why he’s such a failure in life and lacks the motivation or desire to do anything about it.
Keiko, under pressure from her friends and family to find a romantic partner, suggests they hook up: their pretend relationship would get her friends and family off her back, and his only demand is that she allow him to withdraw from the world and live in her bathroom, feeding him like a pet, so that he no longer has to struggle to justify his existence in a world where societal expectations have worn on him as much as on her. (Here we see the modern equivalent of a gendered division of labour: Keiko is expected to perform the emotional and psychological labour of engaging with the social world by working for a paycheque, while Sriraha sits at home playing with his tablet.) Of course, things never turn out as neatly or easily as our unlikely protagonists might hope.
Convenience Store Woman is full of wisdom about our modern age, but like any wise book it dwells more on making prescient observations than on offering any answers. Murata speaks from experience: she worked (and purportedly still does) at a convenience store, and she succeeds in beautifully depicting its many aspects in more profound depth than readers might expect. A short novella, really, her award-winning debut poses some challenging questions. There’s an underlying questioning of humanity’s real nature: does our culture, with all its norms and rituals, mean we are actually more or less like animals? Especially when an individual’s efforts to live honestly and authentically wind up excluding one from society?
The animal motif recurs throughout the text, as does Shiraha’s incel-inspired prognostications about humans being no more than merely Stone Age hominids driven by prehistoric urges. Murata’s treatment of his character is interesting. At first he appears a frightening, sexually harassing stalker. But confronted by the straight-forward Keiko, he breaks down in tears and admits he just can’t engage with society and simply wants it all to go away. Her sympathy for him comes from her shared experience of a society that seems more trouble than it’s worth; an understanding that basic survival necessitates an ability to conform, driven by a constant fear that those around her will discover that her conformity is merely an act.
The uncertainty and terror of social life is such that sanctuary appears in uncertain places. Murata’s depiction of the convenience store as refuge is both refreshing and convincing. The nonjudgemental brightness of its interior, the welcoming support of its staff, the warm food and cold drinks it offers, the undemanding isolation of the shopping experience, all remind us that unlikely modern spaces can and do still meet our age-old need for sanctuary.
Murata’s theme, rendered through the trappings of the contemporary moment — cell phones, convenience stores, social media — appears modern but actually taps into a deeper and eternal universality: the solitary individual’s struggle to come to terms with a society that demands total, mindless conformity to its norms as the price for sharing in its fruits. It’s a price that is paid more easily by some than by others, and Murata’s brief, whimsical, deeply insightful and pleasantly thought-provoking novel reminds us what torture social life can be for those too honest and authentic to be deluded by its trappings.