Understanding Normality Through the Lens of an Outsider: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Written by Vasundhara Singh
The author of a book about a convenience store worker was a store worker herself for the same duration as her protagonist, 18 years. During this time, Sayaka Murata wrote and published 11 novels and only left her job after this book gained critical and commercial acclaim.
Keeping this in mind, if there is anything you can expect from convenience store woman is it’s unrivalled authenticity and brutal honesty.
1. The Convenience of being normal
Keiko is an oddball. She is an imperfect anomaly in a world of perfection, Japan. She is a 36 year old unmarried woman working part-time at a convenience store. She doesn’t mind her existence but others around her constantly question and abhor it.
We are inside the mind of an outsider.
Keiko is aware of this deficiency. An innate, almost involuntary lack of normalcy. But she doesn’t want others around her to know the full extent of it. Hence, she comes up with a solution: Copy the speech patterns, dressing sense and mannerisms of her co-workers.
The setting of the store fulfills Keiko’s plan. Here, with it’s employee training and strict guidelines of behaving, she is able to relish in the joy of being common.
“…I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside the manual.”
But despite all her eccentricities, Keiko is a relatable character. She is struggling to fit in, struggling to make sense of a world that itself makes no sense. Keiko knows this confusion about being human isn’t unique to her:
“Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as humans is what I think.”
The rules on living life are naturally recognised by individuals who look to others like themselves for reassurance. Keiko isn’t gifted with this natural recognition of rules. She can’t comprehend the significance of marriage or the burden of crying infants or the suffering of long careers. Why, after all, are we never satisfied with ourselves?
Normality achieved by careful imitation is far more comprehensible. Keiko never openly questions her dilemmas. Instead, she contorts her being to fit inside the mould of a society where deviating from the norm isn’t an option.
“You eliminate parts of life that others find strange- maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to ‘cure’ me.”
Source: The Guardian
2. The store as a character
At its core, the book is a love story. A misfit’s unconditional love for her work, a convenience store. Her sanctuary of safety and warmth.
“When I can’t sleep, I think about the transparent glass box that is still stirring with life even in the darkness of night. That pristine aquarium is still operating like clockwork. As I visualise the scene, the sounds of the store reverberate in my eardrums and lull me to sleep.”
The moment when Keiko spots the poster for a job opening at the store is presented as a scene of sudden and unexpected infatuation. Despite Keiko’s perpetual single hood, she never wallows in self-pity or irredeemable despair. This may be because of the omnipresence of the convenience store.
“Even when I’m far away, the convenience store and I are connected. In my mind’s eye, I picture the brightly lit and bustling store, and I silently stroke my right hand, it’s nails neatly trimmed in order to better work the buttons on the cash register.”
The store is a shrine, a place of worship dictated by a common purpose.
“The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears.”
3. An existence defined by work
The first day at her job, Keiko declares that she has been ‘reborn as a convenience store worker.’ Her survival and identity as a useful member of society is dependent on her association with the store.
“My body belonged to the convenience store even when I wasn’t at work.”
Keiko’s dedication towards her work quickly turns into an obsession. At times, comedic and at others, hair raising, our protagonist never falters over her love for the store. When she finally gives into the pressure and leaves her beloved job, the parting leaves Keiko more bewildered than ever.
“The moisture in my skin, in the membrane over my eyeballs was probably no longer formed by the water from the convenience store.”
I wondered if the author is attempting to mock the exhaustive work culture of Japan with its long hours and high expectations. We are made to reevaluate the facade of freedom.
If freedom in an urban democratic setup denotes choice. And if our choices are merely a reflection of a set of accepted norms proposed and upheld by society then, freedom becomes an illusion. Our reality isn’t constructed by personal choice as we often assume but inherited, absorbed and passed on.
Source: The Seattle Times
4. Keiko is a worker not a human being
Murata writes from the first person perspective of Keiko which helps the readers relate to her quirks and understand her view of the world. If there was no mention of her age, I would assume the character is an adolescent. For the narrative voice drips with an innocent naïveté that compliments her sincere dedication to her work at the convenience store.
Towards the end of the novel, Keiko admits that without her job as a store worker, she is no more than an animal in modern society.
In an interview with LitHub, Murata notes:
When she (Keiko) wears the mask of a cashier, she can act like a human as if she were a human. It’s not her original self but it enables her to meet people who accept her and don’t treat her like a weirdo so in that sense, it meant freedom to Keiko.
She has been ‘strange’ to herself and to others for as long as she can remember, she doesn’t have any concrete plans for the future, her friends are few and unwelcoming of her real self and her thoughts are better left undisclosed.
“As far as I was concerned, though, keeping my mouth shut was the most sensible approach to getting by in life.”
The novel’s mundane details are strengthened by a consistent and well developed main character who drives the plot and serves it.
Keiko is eccentric but never, otherworldly. She is socially handicapped but never devoid of hope.
5. The convenience of a man, any man
At the midpoint of the novel, we have the misfortune of meeting the archetype misogynist, Shiraha. He was briefly employed at the convenience store but fired for his tardiness and inexplicable behaviour. Even though, in temperament and ideology, Shiraha is the polar opposite of Keiko. They, nonetheless, have some things in common.
Keiko and Shiraha are both unmarried social dropouts. After a series of events, Keiko decides to adopt the incorrigible bachelor and to feed him as one would a pet.
Keiko confronts a harsh truth: A man, any man or a husband is all a woman needs to be fulfilled or so the world thinks.
“I suppose just the fact you have a partner is something of an improvement.”
Shiraha, the embodiment of toxic masculinity states that Keiko is a burden on the village because her womb is too old to be of any use and she doesn’t have the looks to serve her carnal desire. As he concludes, she is the lowest of the low.
You see what our poor protagonist is dealing with here.
When Keiko wants to rid herself of this pest, he argues,
“But if you kick me out now, they’ll judge you even more harshly, so you have no choice but to keep me around.”
The convenience of being normal is accompanied by the convenience of having a man by your side, however degrading, abusive or distressing he may be.
Source: Japan Info
Murata isn’t creating a world that exists outside of our reach instead, she is holding up a mirror to the world and people we so often come across but overlook. What may seem insignificant to the rest of us becomes her magnum opus.