.Book Thursday.

Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.

Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman is a darkly comic look at the life of a 36-year-old woman working in a convenience store and the many ways she is looked down upon by ‘normal society’. Having surpassed a socially acceptable age for the job and still being single, Keiko is relegated to the fringes of society despite being a model employee. As someone who is also on the autism spectrum, she often has difficulties navigating what is considered normal, wishing there was a manual to life she could study and master the way she has the store manual. In this slim novel, Murata humorously and effectively skewers society for the inherently ableist and often misogynist undercurrents in socially enforced hierarchies and questions perspectives of normality all while also crafting a touching ode to essential employees who are doing their best despite our lack of care and attention for them.

This book really hit me. Keiko instinctively knows exactly how to organize a display for optimal sales, chart your day around busy periods, picking up difficult hours when others leave. A simple and pretty thankless job and something where being good and reliable at it usually becomes a sort of self-punishment when you get tasked with the more difficult shifts and added responsibilities and the verbal thank you’s are never echoed in your paycheck. Each scene in the store breathed with life and felt true, an authenticity she was able to capture as Murata was working in a convenience store while writing the book. I could place myself in those back offices and feel deep in my heart the various employee reactions to corporate mottos and extreme instances of greeting each customer. While I’ve never shouted ‘Irasshaimase’, which becomes almost a mantra in the novel, the scenes around its use in the novel really rang true within me. So I felt it when Keiko comments:

When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.

This is a novel for the retail clerk, the essential workers, and anyone who has ever been made to feel less simply for working a job. Shoutout to you.

So the manual for life already existed. It was just that it was already ingrained in everyone’s heads, and there wasn’t any need to put it in writing.

Keiko is a really empathetic character. When she turns 18, she gets a job at the convenience store where she still works 18 years later. The symmetry of 18 years is a nice metaphor for the dichotomy of Keiko as an employee and Keiko as a social being. Outside the store, she is an outsider, while inside she is the star employee. The store does, however, give her an opportunity to observe how the “normal” people act and dress, with Keiko often adopting the mannerisms and clothing styles of coworkers she enjoys best. ‘After all, I absorb the world around me,’ she thinks, ‘and that’s changing all the time.’ As employees come and go, so too does Keiko’s mannerisms, which she is embarrassed by when it is pointed out to her.

The store starts to appear as a microcosm of the world for her. When new employee, Shiraha, shrugs off work, refuses to listen to his female coworkers and complains constantly (we all know this guy), Keiko asks him ‘Um, you do realize you’ll be fixed?’ Keiko sees employees all as cells in the body of the store, and the defective or sickly ones are discarded and replaced. Such is the way of a store. She accepts that her pay is solely to keep her alive enough to keep working and is constantly aware of her need to stay healthy ‘for the store.’ While this subtly points to how jobs don’t provide a living wage and keep employees trapped in the lower classes, it also makes her realize that she too will eventually be replaced.

When you do physical labor, you end up being no longer useful when your physical condition deteriorates. However hard I work, however dependable I am, when my body grows old then no doubt I too will be a worn-out part, ready to be replaced, no longer of any use to the convenience store.

The extreme ableism in a work culture such as this is perpetuating a class of ‘undesirables’ and outsiders. Keiko notes that this is how social life is too, and while she may still be a star employee, in her social life she is constantly exposed as ‘not normal’ and criticized openly for it. Keiko has no interest in sexual relations–shoutout to anyone who is ace, you are valid and I support you–yet constantly told ‘deep down you must be getting desperate.’ To be an outsider, Keiko finds, is also to be bombarded with opinions on how you should live your life and to be always making excuses for yourself instead of able to just embrace your own being. ‘The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects,’ she thinks, despairing, ‘anyone who is lacking is disposed of.’ This is, understandably, a difficult impasse of an existential crisis, particularly for one who wants to just be themself and work their job with pride.

The specific form of what is considered an “ordinary person” had been there all along, unchanged since prehistoric times I finally realized.’ 

This perspective is only amplified when Keiko converses with Shiraha who spends all his time ranting about how society discards the outsiders. Shiraha is obsessed with his theory of tribalism and that humans haven’t changed ‘since the Stone Age’ of discarding the weak and outsiders. While he isn’t exactly wrong about society being oppressive, Keiko concedes, he himself is part of the problem (one of my favorite scenes in The Big Lebowski is Jeff Bridges saying ‘You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole”) as he reinforces misogyny and he doesn’t want to dismantle the oppressive structures but instead climb them to be an oppressor. Shiraha is essentially an Incel with his combination of sexual predator nature combined with a massive victim complex and is fired after harassing woman employees and then stalking a woman customer.

Despite Shiraha’s completely repulsive behavior and personality, Keiko sees how he may be useful. She can keep him ‘hidden from society’ in her apartment because having a man live there will raise her ‘normalcy’ in other’s eyes. ‘It appears that if a man and a woman are alone in an apartment together, people’s imaginations run wild and they’re satisfied regardless of the reality,’ she says.

She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.

Here we see how social norms are a frail playacting. ‘I was beginning to lose track of what “society” actually was,’ she thinks, ‘ I even had the feeling it was all an illusion.’ What is sad is how once she has penetrated the illusion, her perceptions of everyone around her crumble as does her world. The people she respects at work are revealed as gossips more interested in social interaction than doing a job, which is devastating to her, and her plans go inevitably awry. However, I found the conclusion of the novel to be hopeful and empowering, especially as it validates essential workers as being something to be proud of.

All in all, Sayaka Murata has crafted a brilliant little gem that quickly cuts to the heart of society and exposes normality and social hierarchy as a mere facade for oppression. This is one for the outsiders, the “losers” (as Shiraha is quick to call people), those making ends meet while rightfully believing they are still dignified. It is deeply and darkly comical but is written with such an earnest and light touch that it reverberates in your soul like the sun breaking through the clouds as you step out of work.

Poignant, hopeful and empowering, Convenience Store Woman is a winner.

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