Not a few novels tell about how it feels to be different and how people are dealing with that feeling, or with “being different” itself, in the middle of society that demands conformity. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is perhaps just another one, but the short book translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori definitely shows a pretty unusual way to tackle general people’s expectations of both men and women. It’s brow-rising and highly questionable, at first, but the twist is just as expected―well, it does make this book sound conforming to the readers’ expectation, though.
Keiko Furukura is more than just different since she was a child. She didn’t cry over and bury a dead bird, she thought she should eat it with her father. She didn’t stop boys from fighting by calling their teacher or even shouting at them, she hit one of them in the head with a spade. She never has a boyfriend, she is not married, has no kids and has been working in the same convenience store for eighteen years. She is not what people see as normal. To the society, and even to her family, she is weird, sick, not merely unable to live up to everyone’s standards. But she is happy with her life, with herself, until one day comes a new worker in the convenience store who turns her path to another direction.
The new worker is named Shiraha, a pathetic man with a pathetic view and pathetic self-pity, taking his rage toward the unfair world and their petty standards on clueless Keiko. They have one thing in common, though: they don’t live up to those standards. Just like Keiko, Shiraha is single and has no kids; but unlike her, he is such a lazy person who doesn’t like working and doesn’t have a certain path of career. All he wants is to stay at home doing what he likes and have someone else earn money for him. This is certainly not what a “normal” man looks like. But this is the point where Shiraha finds some kind of solution for him and Keiko―a solution in which Keiko doesn’t have to be seen as an old spinster anymore, while Shiraha doesn’t have to be criticized by the society again for being jobless.
The character of Keiko and Shiraha and each of their background story clearly show how society put their expectations on both males and females. Single women who are still not married in their thirties is not the only “problem”, single men who have no job and earn no money is, too. They are deemed useless, being laughed at, looked down on as much as unmarried women are. And though his claim that “men have it much harder than women” is very much debatable, he is right when he says that they are (that we are) still living in the Stone Age―where men go hunting and women give birth, and those who don’t fit into the “village” are expelled.
Society is a bunch of people with like mind, like manner of speech, like behavior that anyone with even slightly different qualities will be seen as sick, abnormal, so they need to be cured of this sickness and abnormality. And the only cure for these is to do what (normal) people do. Keiko and Shiraha almost take this cure―this is the both “unexpected” and “disappointing” point of the book―before she realizes what actually makes her happy, meeting the common standards or not.
Convenience Store Woman obviously poses cliche questions we still often don’t know how to answer: should we conform to the society, with all their customs and traditions and thoughts and way of life that have never actually changed since it first existed? Or should we do everything our own way, sacrificing social acceptance, recognition and love and warmth that we need as human beings? What truly makes us happy? Being ourselves and left alone, alienated? Or being someone that the society want us to be, accepted but damaged? Are we sure we know what to choose? Those who dare to pick one over the other must have known the consequences. And Keiko surely knows that.
At last, Sayaka Murata has presented to us something to ponder about. Luckily, the (translated) narrative’s hilarious tone helps us do that without being too stressful in thinking about our existence and its meaning. This book is truly a gem. When will we ever get a chance of laughing at our own predicament?