“Convenience Store Woman,” Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut and winner of Japan’s revered Akutagawa Prize, is a quiet masterpiece that offers a refreshing perspective on human nature through the disarming observations of a social misfit.
Keiko Furukura is the first to admit she was a “rather strange child.” Finding a dead bird in the park, she suggests to her mother that they grill and eat it. When a playground fight breaks out, she calmly ends it by pragmatically smashing one of the combatant’s heads with a shovel. While Keiko is the opposite of a troubled child, these incidents lend the story a subtle undercurrent of danger.
At the age of 18, Keiko is born again when she comes upon the brightly lit vacancy of a soon-to-open Smile Mart. Ever the fish out of water, she is drawn to this “shining white aquarium.” Donning the Smile Mart uniform, her life finally has a purpose. The rules of living are all right there in the store manual. Goals are stated, behavior dictated and rote speech rehearsed at the start of every shift: “Certainly, right away sir!” “Thank you for your custom!”
Keiko’s disconcerting lack of identity now becomes a source of strength. She is blissfully submerged in the store’s rituals, adopting her co-workers’ speech patterns and facial expressions, subsisting on store food that is nearing its sell-by date. “When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine. … My very cells exist for the convenience store.” Managers and co-workers come and go, but the store remains.
But now she is 36, and with no professional career, husband or children, not even a boyfriend, Keiko’s defiance of middle-class normalcy is beginning to grow conspicuous. Her friends begin to view her like “some ghastly life form,” and set out to fix her. An unlikely solution arrives in the form of Shiraha, a bitter misogynistic slacker hired on at the store but soon let go for his terrible work habits. Although Shiraha shows nothing but contempt for Keiko, she wonders if they, this mismatched pair of outsiders, might not find a way to shore each other up against the mounting pressure to conform.
Keiko’s forthright voice is utterly convincing in its lack of affect and guile, pitched somewhere between the quirky earnestness of Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and the bemused logic of “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock. Misfit heroes have won our hearts before, as in Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and their oddity has shined a light on the absurd pretensions of so-called normalcy, as in Jerzy Kosinksi’s “Being There.” Yet seldom has a narrator been so true to a lack of self, and so triumphantly other.
This strange heroism may explain why the differences between Keiko Furukura and the reader gradually dwindle, and we come to perceive just how tenuous and unconsidered our own attitudes and constructs are, how curious our claims of personhood, and how odd and improbable our own story.
“Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata, Grove Press, First English Edition, 176 pp., $20