Rob Miller

Convenience Store Woman

A woman, alienated by society’s expectations, defies convention and chooses a life of mundanity and predictability in Sayaka Murata’s grimly comic novel

Keiko isn’t normal. Thirty-six and unmarried, for the last eighteen years she’s worked in a convenience store – a job normally reserved for students or the semi-retired. Her family find this odd: why isn’t she settling down? Why hasn’t she found a husband? Why isn’t she thinking about children? Why isn’t she advancing in a career?

In truth, they always found Keiko odd. When she was a child, she couldn’t understand her classmates’ horror at her breaking up a fight by walloping one of the quarrelling boys over the head with a shovel. “Someone stop them!”, a child had shouted – hadn’t she done just that? Why weren’t they happy? More misunderstandings followed, more misinterpretation, more of Keiko’s inability to just do what was normal.

Her family tried everything to “cure” her. Psychologists were enlisted; the school called endless meetings. In the end, upset at the upset she’s causing, she decides simply to be silent, not voicing her controversial opinions and observations but instead blending into the background, becoming acceptable through her silence, not truly understanding how she’s supposed to behave but, by emulating others and by keeping a low profile, getting by in the world regardless. Eventually, as an adult, she found work in a konbini, one of the countless thousands of convenience stores that can be found on almost every street corner in every Japanese city and that sell everything from snacks to umbrellas, from stamps to opera tickets.

The konbini is a living organism. It breathes in and out with the rush and quiet of customers. Its cells are gradually replaced: the products on offer change, workers come and go. But the overall whole remains operating, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Murata herself worked part-time in a convenience store for eighteen years, until last year when she finally began to write full-time – while working on this, her tenth novel. As a result, the minutiae of the store’s daily rhythms are observed impeccably: the monitoring of the weather forecast to determine which products will sell well, the shifting of stock as the day wears on, the constant flow of tiny tasks that are ticked off throughout the day.

Keiko finds solace in this simplicity, this predictability. The clearly defined expectations and straightforward instructions, dehumanising to others, liberate her and allow her to feel like a “normal” person who is part of something bigger:

“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.”

Outside of her specific duties in the store, she continues to emulate and to mirror those around her, and as a result she continues to pass for “normal”. Between that and her ability to excel at her job, she attains something like contentment.

But for the others in her life, that’s not enough – especially as they themselves move on. They expect more, and are troubled by Keiko’s unwillingness or inability to confirm to those expectations. Her refusal to have sex, to have a relationship, to get married, to settle down prompts first sympathy (she must be miserable), then confusion (why isn’t she miserable?), and then finally anger (we’ll make her miserable). The “village mentality” strikes, and she’s expected to conform or get out:

“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Wanting simply to be left alone, to be allowed to be the convenience store worker that she strives so much to be and that gives her so much satisfaction, she strikes an ingenious compromise. If the appearance of normality is what people desire, why not give them that? And so she invites an ex-colleague – a jobless layabout with questionable morality and a penchant for sleeping in the bath – to join her in a marriage of convenience, pretending outwardly to have settled down and to be planning for marriage and children but in reality doing nothing of the sort.

In the end, we’re left to contemplate a tension that sits at the very heart of our modern way of life. The alienation, dehumanisation, and consumerism that seem to make our world so dystopic also provide the anonymity and distance that allow Keiko to be who she wants to be, to live in splendid isolation even while she interacts with thousands of people every day, to feel normal. But then our own village mentality stirs. Do we want to live this disconnected life? Is thriving in the world as it is today contingent on becoming, as Keiko is, an emotionless automaton? Is her decision to live for herself and forego “having children, to make [the] species prosper” a moral decision, in the face of declining birth rates? Is Keiko a role model or, with her inability to conform and her borderline psychopathy, someone to be feared and shunned, a foreign object to be expurgated?

There is no easy answer, and we must accept that, like the convenience store, the world and the people within it change constantly, whether we like it or not. But Keiko ultimately emerges as perhaps the heroine that our times – darkly comic as they are – deserve, a heroine for everyone who feels a disconnect between their own aspirations and the ones foisted on them by a society that, when push comes to shove, preserves and protects its own normality at the expense of individuals’ abilities to craft their own.