Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Granta Books, 2019. First Japanese edition 2016
I’ve said here before that Mrs TD believes I read too many ‘morose’ books. I should read something more cheerful.
I emailed David McKay, the translator of Multatuli and J. Slauerhof, whose novels I posted on here recently, to tell him my posts had been published at T. Days. I said I was hoping to read another of his translations, War and Turpentine (by Flemish Belgian author Stefan Hertmans), but was needing something ‘more cheerful’. He recommended this short novel by Sayaka Murata, ‘which has moments of dark humour and sinister overtones but is a very funny, charming character sketch on the whole,’ he wrote.
He was right.
Keiko Furukura is 36 and has worked in the same convenience store since it opened in a railway station mall eighteen years earlier. She seems to be on the autistic spectrum; we’re told of some disturbing incidents in her childhood where her tendency to fail to interpret people’s implied meanings, but to take their words horribly literally, gets her into trouble and causes her mother deep consternation.
She feels people don’t think she’s normal, so tries hard to imitate the intonations and conversational gambits of women around her, even the way they dress; that way she almost goes unnoticed.
Only at the convenience store does she feel at peace. She’s in tune with its sounds and rituals. She likes the predictable, unchanging routine. True, the staff and customers come and go, but the pulse of the store is reassuringly repetitive, predictable.
Keeping herself fit and alert enough to work there each day gives her life purpose; otherwise she’d be just an animal, and carnal urges slightly disgust her. At the store she can tune in to its mechanistic hum, merge and forget trying to be human.
When an equally strange young man joins the workforce and enters her life, she’s in danger of having to start behaving like a human, not a ‘foreign body’. The store reclaims her.
It’s not what I’d call a particularly cheerful novel. It does have a bizarrely humorous air: that deadpan narrative voice with its lack of affect, the narrator’s baffled fluster at the mysterious ways of humans, places her in the world of AI ‘characters’ in recent sci-fi fiction. She tries to interpret the world, but ultimately prefers the regularity of stock control and parroting the scripted greetings her team are drilled in every morning before they start work.
It’s a satire, I suppose, on the regimented world of Japanese corporate and commercial enterprise, and the strict requirements of a hierarchical culture – especially for women. Keiko is repeatedly reminded that she’s a freak largely because she conforms neither to the economic stereotype that makes other people comfortable: career progression, acquire more consumables (why drudge at a dead-end part-time job in a store, friends and family wonder), nor to the gender stereotype: get married, reproduce, spread her and genes.
She flirts with this last idea, repellent as she finds its animality, but is easily dissuaded from getting pregnant, in one of the funniest scenes in the novel.
Despite the dark humour I found I was most frequently reminded by this novel’s tone and effect of Kafka, and in particular of ‘Metamorphosis’. Keiko’s vague awareness that she’s not like everyone else around her causes her to want to transform and conform, but ultimately she’s only happy to be who she knows she really is – not ‘one of us’.
I enjoyed the book, and zoomed through it in a couple of hours. The translation is deftly done, and reads rapidly and smoothly. It was amusing and diverting to read, and not morose, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.
Any other suggestions for something cheerful? Not Angela Thirkell, please.