Friday, May 1, 2020

Convenience Store Woman - liberating views of what is and is not valued by society (book Review)

An onigiri decorated like a young woman sits on a plate, on a pretty fabric napkin on a solid background
Convenience Store Woman - 8/10

I finally got a chance to read Sayaka Murata's "Convenience Store Woman," a quick and quirky novella about a 36 year old woman who has worked in a convenience store in Japan ever since she graduated high school. This book is by turns charming and revealing and was a very fast read.

Keiko, now 36, recounts how she never understood why people thought she was strange. Her actions always seemed logical to her, even in childhood. One amazing example was from elementary school. Two boys were fighting and everyone else was screaming "stop them stop them." So she does the logical thing, gets  a shovel, and beats one on the head. That got him to stop instantly. Problems solved. She can't understand why she was the one in trouble afterwards. So quickly enough she learns that the easiest way to get through the day was to mimic the social conventions of other people even if she didn't understand or care about the conventions (or the people) at all. As a result, she graduated high-school quietly and went on to start university.

But one day, a wrong turn takes her past an about-to-be-opened new convenience store. On a whim, she applies and begins working there. Fast forward 18 years and she's still working there. But rather than a tale of someone who got lost, got stuck, and was leading an unfulfilling life, "Convenience Store Woman" explores a totally different way of being in the world, a totally different way of inhabiting life, and a totally different perspective on the very same experiences we each have every day.

For Keiko, every sound in the store is like nature to her, every rhythm and system and scheduled event (the stocking, the delivering, the weekly sales) are her comfort and her joy. She takes pride in her work, she's good at it, she likes the routines, and isn't at all motivated by things like wealth, status, popularity, sex, love, having children, or even people. She's happy living in a one room apartment, eating "feed" as she calls it (boiled vegetables, chicken and rice, the nutrients she needs to be prepared for work the next day), and picking up every shift she can just to be in the one place that makes sense to her and fills her up. She is happy and content and fulfilled.

If you're starting to get the hunch that maybe Keiko is on the autism spectrum, I'd have to agree with you. It's never explicitly stated in the book, but her family regularly talks about wanting her to be "cured" as they say. Cured of what exactly? Well, to them, it's a general "weirdness" - it's weird to them that she doesn't care about the same things they care about, and it's weird to them the things that do matter to her. People are very confused by her unless she mimics what she thinks they want to hear.

I started to question whether it was even okay for me to label her as being on the autism spectrum after she discusses how people feel a need to label others, fit them into roles and boxes, and maybe I was just doing the same thing. Could I only understand Keiko if I put a label of "autistic" on her? After all, I've spent the better part of the last 12 years working with children and adults with autism, and that has been joyous experiences for me. But what does it matter to understanding Keiko? Why do I focus so much on this label as I read her story? Am I just being ableist by putting that label on her as a way to "justify" why she is different?

Because even without the label, if we focus just on Keiko as someone who is leading a life that is personally meaningful and fulfilling to her, shouldn't we just be joyful on her account? Isn't is lovely to read a story about a person who genuinely is happy and content? And that's part of what makes this book so striking. It really is a novel about happiness, but the happiness doesn't come to the reader through cliche'd scenes of things that "should" or "do" make most people happy. Instead, we have to work to understand why Keiko is happy because for her, it's obvious that these things make her happy and in fact, she isn't clear why others don't feel the same way, and by the end, neither are we.

The story reaches its apex when she takes her mimicry of other people (their speech and dress patterns) to another level, trying to embrace a way of conforming to adult society that still allows her to have the things she truly enjoys (I won't give specifics because I don't want too many spoilers). Only, this attempt backfires in a way that forces her to confront  that last little piece of her that was set on conforming.

Instead, she emerges through this experience more confident than ever that her way of life has meaning to her and therefore she doesn't need to change it. It's a blissful revelation and her dialogue with another character in the penultimate scene is so clear headed as to be one of the most explicitly feminist scenes I can imagine. It's feminist because it is making clear that what society is trying to impose on her has no objective value. While the vast majority of the world may not value what she values and vice versa, that doesn't make it wrong for her to lead an entirely different life.

The writing is brisk and the translation very readable. In fact, I would be tempted to say the prose was very simple, but I think that style actually works for the crystal clear, concise, and direct view Keiko has on her life and experiences. Her perspectives would be jarring if it wasn't also so obvious that she's happy and okay.

The only thing that maybe mars this novella a little bit for me (and only slightly), is another character in the book (and I don't want to give to much away since it's such a slight sized book) who is incredibly focused on the exploitative nature of traditional society. Or at least so he says.

At first his arguments about why people "breed" and why men have jobs and the pressure society puts on people to conform seems like an analogue to her feelings. But it is something else entirely. He would probably be described as a NEET in Japan. And it becomes increasingly clear that while his politics look progressive, he's actually just displaying another type of patriarchal toxicity - very similar to the concept of the incel. He's not likable, and that's the point, and his politics and theories eventually serve to crystallize her world view by point of contrast.

But there's also an element of "plot-i-ness" in how he is used in the story. What I mean by that, is that his character, his speeches, his events in the story are almost a bit forced or too calculated by the author. It isn't quite as subtle as a lot of the other work in the novel. But he does serve as the impetus that pushes her to maximal, full self-acceptance and self-actualization. It's ultimately a beautiful self-actualization because it is so contrary to what we "expect" from a "normal" person. So he serves that purpose in her story, and thankfully gets what he deserves in the end.

Overall, this is just a lovely book that really does have the possibility to expanding how we let go of our propensity to judge other people by their accomplishments and how they fit (or don't) into our social conventions and what we value (or don't). What should it matter to us so long as they are happy and fulfilled? Keiko shows us that there are other ways of being in the world that can be just as meaningful even if we don't understand it. It is an empathetic book, a kind book, and a very charming read. "Convenience Story Woman" gets a strong 8/10. I'm looking forward to her next one to be translated into English later this year.


Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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