Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman is a novella with such minimal plotting it almost reads like a character-study. The narrator is a thirty-five-year-old, single woman who works part-time at a convenience store in Japan. Keiko Furukura does not fit into Japanese society and may have trouble existing in other cultures as she has trouble deciphering mores. Keiko’s family wishes to “cure” her and she gradually learns how to modify her behavior so as not to call attention to herself. However, I wondered if Keiko was undiagnosed and on the autism spectrum. If so, the misunderstandings between Keiko and other characters seem less funny and more mocking.
At the convenience store, Keiko is taught how to behave, how to interact, how to speak and smile at people, and lives according to a schedule. Her life becomes the convenience store. Tension arrives in the form of a mid-thirties, shiftless man named Shiraha, who starts work at the store, but feels the it is demeaning. Shiraha hates the store, and hates society because he believes society robbed him of his chance to be with a woman. Shiraha is an incel. He harasses women at the convenience store and starts stalking a customer.
The other point of tension is that at age thirty-five, Keiko’s lack of a romantic partner and work at the convenience store have become odd. In a strange decision, Keiko invites Shiraha to move in with her. They pretend to be a couple so that people will stop bothering Keiko about being single and Shiraha can totally withdraw from society. Keiko quits the store as her life there has become an oddity. The arrangement is almost too extreme to believe, but I went with it. Keiko almost thinks of Shiraha as a pet. She is asexual and for some reason, Shiraha is not attracted to Keiko. It seems like Keiko’s age and difficulty functioning in society make her undesirable to him.
The power dynamics between Keiko and Shiraha are interesting as he is a misogynist and is totally dependent on her. She sees his misogyny as less ingrained and more something he has parroted, much in the same way that she parrots other people’s manner of speech and dress. But, Keiko has trouble reading people, so why should the reader trust her instincts? The tension finally breaks at the end when Shiraha pushes her toward working a better job to support him and Keiko rediscovers her place in the convenience store.
I was troubled with the ending. Keiko declares, “Think of me as an animal, a convenience store animal. I can’t betray my instinct…the animal me, the convenience store worker, has absolutely no use for you whatsoever.”
Shiraha replies, “You’re not human!”
In Keiko’s thoughts she yells back at him, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”
As the novella closes, we center on Keiko as she sees herself:
I caught sight of myself reflected in the window of the convenience store I’d just come out of. My hands, my feet—they existed only for the store! For the first time, I could think of the me in the window as a being with meaning.
Is it Keiko, Japanese society, or the author who is seeing the convenience store woman as an animal, as less than human? We see other characters demean convenience store workers in the book, and Keiko’s acceptance of who she is seems off, because she conflates it with not being human, or not being acceptable. As I said, the novella leaves me feeling off. And, I don’t know what to make of Shiraha’s misogyny and the way Keiko overlooks it.
One work of fiction Convenience Store Woman reminded me of is The Islanders, which is a French novella that centers heavily on the interior lives of two characters as they hole up in an apartment and exist outside of society, much like Keiko and Shiraha.
While Convenience Store Woman successfully shows the role of the convenience store in Japanese society, the dynamics between the characters and the narrow focus on Keiko’s interior life didn’t work for me. If the novella explored how autism goes undiagnosed in Japan and how people may be ostracized, then it would be a much stronger book. If the book is trying to do that, it fails hard as the humor seems to be at Keiko’s expense.