At eighteen, Keiko Furukura, a strange, adrift young woman, landed a part-time job at a convenience store. It gave her a uniform, and an identity; more, it gave her a purpose: the dead-end job as moral calling. As others have noted, she’s a reverse Bartleby. Where Melville’s character preferred not to fulfill his duties, Furukura lives for hers.
As she grows older (the bulk of the novel takes place when she’s thirty-six), her family and friends hector her: when will she get married, or get a real job? That she prefers not to do either never crosses their minds. What is life but work, marriage, motherhood, or all three?
Sayaka Murata’s novel (her first to be translated into English) has been called strange. Perhaps it is, here. But Japan has produced Haruki Murakami and Yoko Tawada, so its bar for strangeness is pretty high. If anything, the book is resolutely realistic and even mundane. The proper display of merchandise, and progress toward a sales goal, become big deals.
I was reminded of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, so full of plodding, everyday life, but his main character (who is himself) is less neurotic than Murata’s, and his range is broader. Furukura is always at home, or at work, or at a party or lunch she attends out of duty or misplaced hopefulness.
The intrusion into her life of a lazy, angry man her own age promises to shake things up, and it does. Soon she takes steps that alternately thrill and horrify others. The end is a kind of re-embrace of a momentarily lost faith.
Convenience Store Woman is a small book, both in page count and in scope. But Murata’s command of tone is unfailing, and her depiction of a character unconnected to society has real originality and depth. I have no doubt that there are readers who set the book down in astonishment, convinced they had looked into a mirror.