Sayaka Murata’s ‘Convenience Store Woman’ deserves to be put in your shopping bag

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Unlike Bartleby of “I would prefer not to” fame and Gregor of “The Metamorphosis,” Keiko Furukura, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s novel “Convenience Store Woman,” translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, finds comfort, love and even religion in the dehumanizing effects of being a convenience store employee. After her first day as a worker at the age of 18 — she is now 36 — Keiko feels herself metamorphosize on a cellular, elemental level: “At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.”

“Convenience Store Woman” is deceivingly short and plainly written, with a protagonist who initially comes across as easily comprehensible in her blunt honesty. The full extent of Keiko’s strangeness, with her sharp edges and moral ambiguity, takes us by surprise, making this a brave book and Murata an unflinching, exciting writer. To relentlessly put Keiko on trial, as her friends and family do by flinging labels and projecting imagined anguishes on her, is to simplify her, and ultimately, overlook Keiko’s complexity — one of the most fascinating aspects of Sayaka Murata’s novel. Keiko’s nonconformity should be accepted with a lingering, welcomed sense of unease.   

While Keiko excels at her job, which is governed by specific instructions and rules, she is unable to even fake normalcy outside of the convenience store, where she has no clear manual on how to act. She repeatedly gravitates toward violence to solve minor problems, an inclination she has learned to repress. Despite this, the reader gets the sense that Keiko is less intentionally cruel than simply hollow, unforgiving and somehow sterile, like a convenience store at 3 a.m.

Much less disturbing are the two most obvious signs of her nonconformity that her friends and family relentlessly take issue with — her single status and her lack of an ambitious career. In an attempt to remedy the former, Keiko “adopts” and begins living with Shiraha, a misogynistic deadbeat who’s prone to hypocritical rants that, while oftentimes nonsensical, do contain glimmers of truth. Or at least, they reflect Keiko’s alienating reality.

“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know,” Shiraha lectures, accurately describing Keiko’s frustrating conversations with her uncomprehending friends and family. Here, Murata appears to be giving a nod to Meursault’s murder-turned-character trial in Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” which also made famous the flat, detached writing style that “Convenience Store Woman” echoes.  

Ultimately, Keiko embraces her servitude to the indifferent convenience store, and, inevitably, her inability to form substantial connections with other humans. To the New York Times, Murata expressed a certain amount of admiration for Keiko and fondly recalled her own experience as a longtime convenience store employee. This context dissuades readers from interpreting the novel as a satirical critique of the efficiency-driven, repetitive and dull 9-to-5 worklife.

It might be tempting to wholeheartedly root for Keiko. However, upon finishing the book, the reader can’t help but feel wariness and a shade of horror toward her. When Keiko temporarily quits her job at the convenience store at Shiraha’s insistence, she is unable to sleep, barely showers, eats at erratic times and becomes, very literally, purposeless. Her soul, it seems, has been absorbed into the cheap steel racks, gleaming tiles and glaringly lit refrigerators of the convenience store.

But if being totally uncritical of Keiko’s relationship with the convenience store appears somewhat objectionable, being unaccepting of it is worse. Murata proposes we question our authority to deem anyone abnormal, with our outdated yet still popular notions of childbearing and marriage. As Keiko observes after telling her friends that she has begun seeing a man, “They were all so ecstatic about it that I even had to wonder whether they’d lost their minds.” Above all, Murata argues that to be obsessed with and to find solace in the expectations of the outside world is no less bizarre than to do so in a convenience store.

Contact Angela Yin at [email protected].