Convenience Store Woman
Sayaka Murata – Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman admits us with a door chime’s tinkle into the inner world of 36-year-old Keiko Furukura, who has been working at the Smile Mart outside Hiiromachi Station for the past eighteen years. She is a keen and dedicated employee, acutely tuned to the surrounding soundscape of customer activity. Prioritising her role above all else, she immerses herself in fast-paced tasks that involve order, observation, and a carefully calibrated customer-facing performance that balances enthusiastic helpfulness with anonymity.
As Keiko reflects on her youth, we learn the reasons behind her wholesale embrace of this existence. A child of affectionate parents, she displays a proactive approach to problem solving that is utterly indifferent to emotional or social consequence. Acknowledging the ensuing despair of her family, her solution is to become attentively passive: “I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.” At the age of 18, the Smile Mart’s training program provides her with these very guidelines on human interaction – they even have a manual – and Keiko relishes the feeling of wearing her uniform, becoming “a functioning part of the world.”
The comfort of working shifts in this “brightly lit box… a dependable, normal world that keeps turning” is not without its risks. Now in her mid-thirties, Keiko’s friends and family are concerned about her shelf life. They think it odd that she continues to work part-time in a convenience store, having never had a boyfriend, while everyone else has started “hooking up with society, either through employment or marriage.” Murata takes this as an opportunity to deftly draw parallels between the “forcibly normalised environment” of a Tokyo convenience store, and broader 21st Century Japanese society: “the normal world [which] has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects.” Though Keiko has learned to carefully mimic the behaviour, dialogue and dress sense of those around her, she has little inclination to conform in either direction, until an emotionally void – if attractively pragmatic – opportunity presents itself.
Murata’s novel is absorbing and lightly absurd, edging some of its characters towards comical monstrosity in order to satirise the sexism and hypocrisy of a conformist society that tries to eject, in some shape or form, those not deemed to “fit”. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation, meanwhile, ensures that the reader is granted direct access to Murata’s skill as a storyteller and to the directness of Keiko’s narrative voice and manner of interacting with others. Most startling, for this reviewer, is Murata’s elegant depiction of space and sound; the bright and darkened spaces, the cluttered and calm soundtracks, all interacting with the characters’ movements and dialogue as if they are sets on a stage.
This seems fitting, perhaps, for a tale that offers a blunt assessment of social conformity as the sustained expectation, in Keiko’s words, that “you play the part of the fictitious creature called ‘an ordinary person’ that everyone has in them.”
Words: Catherine Gaffney