Looking at this book, it’s difficult to know what one’s getting oneself into. ‘Convenience Store Woman’: the phrase has a kind of menial heroism to it. And reading the book is like realising that, in a climate of social pressure and conformity, some kind of purpose can be found at the checkout till of a convenience store, in a world of rice balls and cans of coffee, amongst the ringing greetings of ‘Irasshaimasé!’
Keiko Furukura, the heroine, has been a misfit since childhood. Now 36, and having worked at the Smile Mart convenience store for 18 years, she deals constantly with the probing questions of a nosy, judgemental society. ‘How come you’re only doing that sort of job?’ ‘How about if we find someone for you?’ ‘Why don’t you register on a marriage site?’ Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Keiko, deciding that ‘deep down’ she ‘wanted some kind of change’, establishes an arrangement with self-pitying, misogynist co-worker Shiraha (also on the margins of society) that will bring an end to their existence as ‘foreign objects’. But the desperation from which society continually suggests she should be suffering is exactly what Keiko so noticeably rejects throughout the novel. There is a kind of poignance to her innocence and honesty: ‘my very cells exist for the convenience store’.
It’s rare to find a relatively static narrative evoke such an intense atmosphere. And it’s strange to be persuaded that the atmosphere of a convenience store has a beauty that warrants the best part of an entire novel. But there’s a sort of tranquility and predictability about the store, a refusal to apologise for what it is, that contrasts strikingly with the constant self-pretence of the world outside. The impulse to construct one’s own narrative, for example, is a source of sustained interest for Murata throughout the novel. Keiko’s sister Mami is the main culprit. As Keiko notes with almost childlike simplicity, ‘she was getting carried away with making up a story for herself.’ Such moments are nicely preserved in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation.
The slightly unnatural quality of Murata’s dialogue complicates things slightly, though. Conversations often feel drawn out, characters are prone to over-explanation, Shiraha’s mansplaining becomes almost sickening. It sometimes feels as though Murata is spoon-feeding us. This infuses the world of the novel with a kind of pervasive unreality, a convenience-store-type perfection that we can’t quite believe. It’s an interesting and unsettling technique. In establishing a gulf between the reality of the world and the unreality of Keiko’s version of it, it gives rise to an ironic sense that Keiko is saving herself from the homogenising effect of society by resorting to an alien, robotic, and unnatural alternative.
But regardless of this tension, we realise that the wish to belong is basic to all mankind, but prompts widely differing behaviours. To one person, belonging means getting married, having kids, being promoted. To another, it’s living life by the manual, being useful, being ‘a cog in society’. And that’s a notion that I think most readers will find reassuring.