Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori
Published by Grove Press
Publication date: June 12, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Debut, Fiction
Japan is known as having a culture that prizes social conformity and adherence to societal values. In such a country, what would it be like to be a young woman whose nature keeps her from understanding these unspoken guidelines? For Keiko Furukuro, the narrator of Convenience Store Woman, it is not difficult. For everyone around her, especially her family, it is an ongoing struggle.
Literality is one of Keiko’s defining characteristics. When she is a little girl she witnesses a playground fight between two boys. When another little girl screams at her to stop it, Keiko grabs a nearby shovel and clocks one of the boys. Thereby stopping the fight but causing a new issue. Needless to say, I found this early example of Keiko’s literal interpretation of the world hilarious. Within the novel, it is a cause for concern. After intervention by her parents and school officials Keiko learns to stay quiet and mimic the actions of those around her. This works, to a degree, but while’s she’s in college she decides she’d like her own money and so gets a part-time job at the new Smile Mart convenience store near her campus. She is quickly enamored of the uniform, the training, the scripts of what to say to each customer, the daily memos about product placement and what items to push. The total regimentation relieves her of any worries about how to act. So much so that 18 years later, she is still there and is considered a prized employee.
It isn’t until society’s norms reassert themselves again that the quiet of Keiko’s life is disturbed. It is deemed unnatural that she be in her thirties, working in such a lowly job, instead of being married at home with children.
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.
So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.
Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me.
She concedes, but while the new, positive interest people take in her is rewarding the realities of squeezing into a mold that doesn’t fit become painful.
Convenience Store Woman is a little story, as compact and crammed full of bright, shiny newness as a Japanese quick mart. In Keiko, author Sayaka Murata perfectly writes a character who is odd, but relatable. To the outside world she appears as a misfit—who want to spend their life as a convenience store clerk?—but for her, it works. As someone incapable of understanding social cues the store gives her what she needs. Just as she gives the customer what they need. It all comes together in a stylized satire that says more about the pitfalls of conformist society than not always fitting in. I’m team Keiko.
Want more great backlist reading about women who don’t quite fit in? Try: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald, or The Helpline by Katherine Collette
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