Thursday, 23 May 2019

Sayaka Murata's Convenience store woman

For our May meeting we ventured into rare territory for us - Japanese literature.

The novel, Convenience store woman by Sayaka Murata, is about 36-year-old Keiko Furukura who isn't "normal". Her family worries she will never fit in. However, at 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened convenience store where she finds a comfortable role in undertaking routine daily tasks, but 18 years later, this is not seen as a valid job for a woman of Keiko's now mature age. Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems!

As is our practice, we started with our ...

First impressions

  • Eerie, strange, off-beat and yet flat, took a while to get into the different voice.
  • Started off thinking it was funny, then quirky, then weird and then sad. It offers a reflection of Japanese culture - patriarchal, the pressure on women. It was almost satirical.
  • Quirky, sad. An odd book, didn't know what to make of it.
  • A good thing is that it was short. Didn't really didn't like it, though it had fabulous details about how shops like that work.
  • Not been to Japan, and didn't like it at first, but the confines of the convenience store was fascinating.
  • A flat read, sparse (a bit like Sally Rooney's Normal people), quirky, well-written.
  • About a non-conforming autistic spectrum person. Has been to Japan three times, and while it has a reputation for being conformist, has met varied, interesting people.
  • Interesting read, but wondered whether she was autistic; thought her preference for living in a safe environment was a comment on Japanese society.
  • Loved it, likes this sort of dispassionate tone, which feels a little typical of Japanese literature, reminiscent of works by Murakami, Kirino, Yoshimoto and even Ishiguro. Loved the juggling of the real and the fantastic as though it's all "normal". 
  • Liked this curious little book, but was it a parody about Japanese society? However it had a wider appeal too (from absent member).
  • Loved it, one of the best books we've read this year (from another absent member).

We then explored in more detail some of the issues raised in first impressions.

We talked quite a bit about the character, and whether we empathised with her or not. We talked about rules, and the role rules play in human relationships. We all confront this - being in a new situation and trying to work out the rules by which we need to act. Our convenience store woman, Keiko, had trouble understanding life's rules, but the convenience store's rules were clear for her and enabled her to be "a cog in society".

When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual.
Keiko's behaviour is strange to most people - sometimes even verging on the psychopathic. When a young child she hits another child over the head with a shovel in the school playground, thinking she was doing the right thing to stop a fight; she muses to herself, looking at a sharp kitchen knife, that it would be easy to stop her nephew crying. Many of us wondered whether she was on the autism spectrum. However, while there is a sense that her family wants to "cure" her, there are no references to a particular diagnosis so most of us felt that we should not treat this as critical to our understanding of the book.

The main theme concerns society's pressure for people to conform. This is particularly Japanese, we understand, but we recognised that many cultures, including our own, aren't good at accepting difference. So, when Keiko and ex-convenience store worker, Shiraha, decide to live together - in a convenient, not romantic, relationship - their families and acquaintances are happy, and start assuming their "story" (the story, that is, of the traditional marriage-children-job course of life.)  People/society are happy that they are (seem to be) conforming to the usual story. Keiko is both amused and mystified by this.

It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s convenient having him here. Everyone’s really happy for me. They’re all congratulating me. They’ve all convinced themselves my new situation is great, and they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business. So he’s useful.

However, it is then expected that she will no longer work at the convenience store, and her life starts to disintegrate when she loses her norm!

Shiraha is not an appealing character. Unlike Keiko he has no desire to work - preferring to be "kept" by Keiko. He takes advantage of her need to appear "normal" (even though it satisfies his need for the same) and he excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men (even since the Stone Age). 

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

One member discussed a review which suggested that the book is, in a way, a love story between a convenience store and a woman. Indeed, there are many references in the novel to her "bodily" reaction to the store - "I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response" She suggested that, with our Rocky Horror Picture Show hat on, we can comprehend her feeling comfortable in the store. After all, in modern society, we are seeing all sorts of things, particularly technology, replacing human relationships". While some members thought the story was a sad one, most of us thought it had a happy ending, because Keiko had worked out the right life for her.

We also discussed the idea of ambition. Keiko and Shiraha feel the pressure to have ambition, to progress in their jobs and their lives, but as one of our members who emailed in her comments wrote "There are lots of us who are happy in our lives and don’t have large ambitions." Amen to that!

The book is also about the need to have empathy for people who are different, the need to recognise that people who don't fit the norm are "human" too.

We discussed the unusual style, with one member wondering whether the strange stiltedness was the writing itself or the quality of the translation. Most of us felt it was the writing itself, that Murata intended the strange, flat, stilted style. It is also very funny in places. We all enjoyed the humour.

Overall, it was a book that may have mystified some of us to start with but it stimulated a fascinating, lively discussion about the book and its author, about Japan itself, and about some universal truths as well. Can't ask more than that.

Present: 9 members (plus input from two other members)

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