Japanese writer, Sayaka Murata’s translated book, ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is edgy, dark and unpredictable. In parts, even speculative.
A lot of the reviews on the book called it hilarious/comical for some reason, which is absurd because I found it alltogether grim. Perhaps because Asian societies are very similar in the way they put pressure on individuals to conform, I found the scenario too real for it to tickle me.
The best thing about the protagonist, Keiko Furukura is that you don’t know where you stand with her. Do you dislike her, sympathize with her or are just plain frightened by her?
What would you make of her 36- year existence without an identity outside of her strobe-lit workplace? She is convinced that her place in society is that of a ‘convenience store worker’ and absolutely nothing else.
Keiko has never had the time or inclination for love- platonic or romantic. Even her two- three acquaintances consider her a ‘foriegn object’ in their circle because of her robotic, abnormal lifestyle, which inexplicably revolves around a part-time job.
She even steers towards psychopathic tendencies when she mimics the intonation and accents of two of her female colleagues in order to appear more ‘normal’, or when she wonders why her sister does not simply stab her baby with a knife that’s within reach, to make him stop crying.
Her childhood episodes reveal she lacks empathy – a crucial factor that shapes her life and defines her ‘abnormality’. At the same time, she’s highly intelligent and self-aware, so she hatches a plot to cheat her way into being accepted by society. Does it work? There lies the crux of the story.
Since the story is narrated in first person, it gives us a glimpse into her perspective of the world- sometimes, it’s grotesquely skewed and sometimes, startlingly clear.
Her sister, Mami’s opinion of Keiko’s ‘abnormality’ reflects the double standards of modern society. Keiko observes that Mami is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.”
The reason I find the book leaning towards the speculative genre is because maybe our gradually eroding empathy as humans and our relentless need for societal approval is starting to skew our own perspective of the world. There may be a generation of humans who become so accustomed and indoctrinated into functioning as ‘cogs in the wheel’ of corporate machines, that they don’t have an individual identity anymore.
Isn’t it happening already?
Where’s the work-life balance? There’s this constant need to work on the next career goal, next appraisal, next job and making our entire lives about work. In Japanese popular culture, there’s a growing section of youngsters with a strong aversion to sex and romance. There’s a name for it- the celibacy syndrome.
Arn’t we all then, somehow becoming Keiko? Well, that frightened me the most (even more than her baby-stabbing idea).
Overall, an intense and thought-provoking book that throws light on social constructs that we subconsciously live within, seemingly happily. A highly recommended read.