The narrator of this dark comic novel tells that she was “lovingly brought up in a normal suburban residential area. But everyone thought I was a rather strange child.” She describes an Amelia-Bedelia moment: as a small child she finds a dead bird in the park and when her mother suggests burying it, she counters with a suggestion to eat it, grilling it as other birds are cooked and eaten by the family. She struggles to get along in the world until she finds her place as a worker in a convenience store.
After extensive training on exact phrases to use with customers and how to straighten the products on the shelves, once she donned the uniform, she says, “At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part of the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society.” The training was “the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.”
We never know whether Miss Furukura is merely “on the spectrum” or a full-blown sociopath. She does eye a knife when her sister speaks about the difficulty keeping her baby quiet, so it’s an open question. Nevertheless her experience rings true to our lives when she says, “My speech is especially infected by everyone around me and is currently a mix of that of Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara. I think the same goes for most people.” That is a well-established aspect of human interaction.
When the narrative begins, Miss Furukura has worked for the convenience store for 18 years and though she is contented, she struggles to fend off old friends or co-workers who are uncomfortable with her lack of interest in a boyfriend and her lack of ambition. No one stays in a convenience store job for long. When a co-worker is fired, Miss Furukura concludes that having him move in with her will solve some of their problems. He needs a place to live and food and she will have cover for not having a boyfriend. Her sister and co-workers are overjoyed at her imagined new life. When she stops working at the store, her life falls apart and she barely functions. On her way to an interview her “boyfriend” arranged, she happens into a convenience store that needs her expertise and she comes back to life.
Other than the matter of Miss Furukura’s sociopathic tendencies, she commands some sympathy. She brought intelligence and diligence to her work and this reader wishes her the best as she returns to her beloved convenience store.
Sayaka Murata is a best-selling author in Japan; this is the first of her ten books to be translated into English. It is a perfect gem of a book: creepy, funny, and thought-provoking all at once.
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Grove Press, 2018, 163 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library and from Amazon.