You could say that Keiko Furukura, the central character and first-person narrator of Sayaka Murata’s wonderfully strange “Convenience Store Woman,” suffers from some degree of Asberger’s syndrome, except “suffer” is exactly the wrong word. While she is obdurately analytical and literal-minded and has to have social conventions spelled out to her, Keiko is not affected by the emotions which, she observes, create havoc and pain in other people’s lives.
She has found her place in the world, and that is as a part-time worker at the Smile Mart, one in a chain of convenience stores in Tokyo. Its routines and social certainties create an arena in which she can operate with confidence. She has shaped her entire life around it, and if anything makes her unhappy — aside from disorder within the store — it is that her way of life and behavior seem, oddly enough, to upset her family.
As a girl she brought consternation to her parents through her lack of empathy, her obliviousness to accepted behavior and a kind of hyperpracticality. When a group of children found a dead bird in the park, all but Keiko broke into tears; she, however, bore it off eagerly to her mother, suggesting that they take it home and eat it. “I was captivated by the vision of my parents and little sister happily tucking in around the dinner table.” This — along with other incidents — convinced Keiko that she should just say nothing and keep to herself. And so she became a silent loner and observer of a society whose rules she did not understand.
All this changed when she happened upon the Smile Mart and found her calling. For the past 18 years she has thrown herself into the highly regimented life of a store clerk with its uniform, prescribed greetings and responses and specified duties. Her training, she reports, taught her for the first time “how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.” In the middle of her first day, she realizes that “for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn.”
Keiko’s enthusiasm for the store’s business — for loudly greeting customers, for promoting its daily specials and arranging provisions on the shelves in accordance with the weather and for keeping an eye out for slipshod performance in her fellow workers — is poignant, funny and, I must say, extremely satisfying. The author herself has worked in a convenience store — happily, it would seem, judging by the relish with which she describes its organization and inner workings.
Still, Keiko’s unsentimental, analytic voice leads us through a story that becomes increasingly surreal. She is something like an investigator of human culture and sees other people with their unfathomable motivations as representatives of an alien species: “When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there,” she tells us. “I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.” She is especially puzzled by her sister’s desire that she should get married and settle down to an ordinary life. This makes no sense to Keiko when she is perfectly content as she is.
It cannot last. The Smile Mart’s Edenic atmosphere is disturbed by the engagement of a new staff member. This is Shiraha, a 30-something know-it-all who believes he is too good for the job. He is impossible, a moody slacker and all-around loser who doesn’t last long at the store, but he does end up staying in Keiko’s small apartment. She has found that having a man in her life — even though he sleeps in the bathtub — pleases everyone who knows her. Finally, they think, she will get married and become normal.
Shiraha, on the other hand, wants her to find a more lucrative job in order to support him. And with that, Keiko’s carefully controlled life disintegrates, a situation painful to her and heartbreaking for the reader who has enjoyed her orderly existence as much as she did. I am happy to say, however, that the novel ends on a triumphant note which I shall not reveal.
“Convenience Store Woman” won Japan’s Akutagawa Award in 2016 and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in that country. It is not a realistic novel and not, as I see it, a parable or allegory (thank goodness). For one thing, it is very funny; Keiko’s affectless, rather chilly approach lends itself to exquisitely deadpan comedy. (“I stroked my sleeping nephew’s cheek with my forefinger. It felt strangely soft, like stroking a blister.”) The book is hard to define; let’s just say that it is a weird social commentary, an exercise in hyperbole, a paean to order and, not least, a celebration of the complex design that goes unnoticed by all who step into the humble convenience store.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews books for the Star Tribune, the Washington Post and elsewhere. This review originally ran in the B&N Review.
Convenience Store Woman
By: Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Publisher: Grove Press, 163 pages, $20.