This morning I finished Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (via Heather O’Neill’s excellent Instagram account tracking the books she and her daughter read).
This short novel follows an unmarried thirty-six-year-old woman named Keiko Furukura who works part-time in a convenience store and thinks a lot about how she and others adjust their voices, mannerisms, clothing and language so as to mirror or mimic the people around them. Keiko is different from these others though, because while they do it naturally, a human behaviour that helps them be good “cogs in society,” Keiko has to think about it, and she has to remind herself to do it. If she doesn’t, her friends, family and coworkers will discover her for the ‘foreign object’ she is and expel her from the community.
It’s a coping mechanism–this noticing and mirroring the comportment of others–she developed as a young girl, after the first few times she realized she was in face a foreign object–someone who doesn’t contribute properly to society. The first time, when she and her classmates found a dead bird on the playground. The second time, the way she’d chosen to stop a fight between two boys. The reactions of others to these events and more let Keiko know: you’re not doing it right. Be careful, or they will leave you behind.
After graduating from high school, the convenience store offers Keiko the anodyne and homogenous environment–nothing ever changes, including what is expected of her–she needs to exist in the world.
And so, Ms. Furukura herself is fine the way her life has unfolded, but the people around her are getting antsy. At thirty-six, they wonder, why isn’t she married? Why doesn’t she have a better job? Why doesn’t she want children? Keiko doesn’t understand why people care so much. She’s an excellent convenience store employee, she’s content, she doesn’t cause trouble, and–not that it’s any of their business but–the idea of sex to her is “ghastly.” Why don’t people just mind their own business?
Their questions turn to suspicion and Keiko’s fears of being cast out of society mount until finally and inevitably she betrays herself–and the convenience store, at that–and does something absolutely horrific in an attempt to satisfy the expectations of others. To her surprise, the people around her cheer. At first.
What begins as a surrealist allegory climaxes into psychological horror, hitting the reader with a reminder as harsh as convenience store lights: though we are mirrors for each other, we are here to fulfill our task and our task alone. When someone interprets your life as lacking, their life is lacking.