Friday, 21 September 2018

Convenience Store Woman

I don't think you could not get more of a contrast between two books: after 'Girl with Glass Feet' I bring you 'Convenience Store Woman' by Sayaka Murata. The thing that strikes first is how culturally specific this story is; if someone were to write a story about a supermarket worker set in Britain it would be nothing like this. Employees in this country do not call out a greeting when you enter a shop, but in Japan they do.
Furukura Keiko is odd, her family know it so they make allowances for her, but really the rest of society is slightly uncomfortable with odd people. Here she is as a small child finding a dead bird:

"'What's up Keiko? Oh! a little bird ... where did it come from I wonder?' she said gently, stroking my hair. 'The poor little thing. shall we make a grave for it?'
'Let's eat it!' I said.
'What?'
'Daddy like yakitori, doesn't he? Let's grill it and have it for dinner!'
She looked at me, startled. Thinking she hadn't heard properly, I repeated what I'd said, this time clearly enunciating my words. The mother sitting next to her gaped at me, her eyes, nostrils, and mouth forming perfect O's. She looked so comical I almost burst out laughing. But then I saw her staring at the bird in my hand and I realised that one of these little birds probably wouldn't be enough for Daddy.
'Shall I get some more?' I asked, glancing at two or three other birds strutting around." (p.6-7)

Keiko is a student but she gets what is described as a 'part-time' job in a local convenience store, and to her it feels as if she has found her place in the world. She relishes the order and routine, a place for everything, and the pure functionality of her interactions with the customers. So instead of graduating and moving on to a proper career she stays working in the convenience store, she stays there for eighteen years. She is not sure how to go about being a 'person' and finds that she can learn by watching her co-workers:

"I'd noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy. If I went along with the manager when he was annoyed or joined in the general irritation at someone skiving off the night shift, there was a strong sense of solidarity as everyone seemed pleased that I was angry too.
Now, too, I felt reassured by the expression on Mrs Izumi and Sugawara's faces: Good, I pulled off being a 'person.' I'd felt similarly reassured any number of times here in the convenience store." (p.29)

Learning how to be a person and the behaviour that is expected of her continues throughout the story, in difference circumstances. What she mainly wants is to be left alone to live the life she has chosen, but pressures put on her by her family and her small group of friends, to both get a 'proper' job and get married, cause her to have to rethink ... or rather to pretend to rethink, her choices. At a party with friends they all gang up and try and persuade her to join a marriage website, claiming she must be desperate and it's nearly too late for her, but she doesn't understand why they feel she must be wanting to change her life:

"The next thing I knew, just like that time in elementary school, they all turned their backs on me and started edging away, staring curiously at me over their shoulders as though contemplating some ghastly life form.
Oh, I thought absently, I've become a foreign object.
In my mind's eye I saw Shiraha, who had been forced to leave the store. Maybe it would be my turn next.
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.
So that's why I needed to be cured. Unless I'm cured normal people will expurgate me.
Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me." (p.80-81)

In one way the story is about one woman's struggle to be accepted, but I also saw something completely different. Here Keiko talks about her walk to work:

"For a convenience store worker, walking through the area around the store is a way to glean valuable information. If a nearby restaurant starts selling lunch boxes it will impact our sales, and road works starting up will mean more customers. It was really tough when a rival closed down four years after our store opened and we were inundated with their customers. We all had to work overtime since the lunchtime peak had gone on and on, and when we ran out of lunch boxes the manager was reprimanded by head office for not doing enough research. That's when I decided to walk around the area keeping my eye on things to make sure nothing like that ever happened again." (p.40)

I felt quite strongly as I was reading about Keiko's life, though I am not sure it was in any way intentional, that the story was a critique of capitalism, and the way it expects its workers to just exist for their job. Everything about Keiko's life is geared towards being a better convenience store worker. She is thinking about work when she is not there, planning ways to make things run more smoothly, she stays well nourished for work, keeps her appearance neat and cuts her nails to more efficiently operate the till. She is the perfect worker. I was conflicted because I felt sympathy for her in her resistance against society's expectations, but the place she had found for herself was so small, it made me sad. A very interesting book, a glimpse of Japanese society from the point of view of someone at the bottom.

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