Keiko Furukura, the protagonist of Japanese author Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman, doesn't really understand human beings. It's not so much that she's a sociopath; Keiko doesn't seem to be capable of summoning a cruel thought. But she is completely befuddled by people.
Here, Keiko considers her sister's infant child:
Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others. But so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called a baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.
This isn't a malicious observation. It's drily delivered and more than a little bit self-aware, but there's no cruelty to it. Keiko just honestly can't figure out what people are for, or what all the fuss of living is about.
If you've read even a smattering of translated Japanese fiction over the last few years, you're probably familiar with the disaffected main character as a theme. Haruki Murakami has built a career on heroes who hover outside society, never quite fitting in. Keiko is the logical endpoint of that theme — someone who is so far outside of human society that she's practically an astronaut.
Keiko isn't devoid of emotion, though. She feels unbridled love and compassion for one particular human institution: the convenience store where she works. After school, Keiko confuses the hell out of her family by turning her back on a promising future and taking a part-time job at a convenience store. Worse, she stays employed there for well over a decade. She doesn't rise in the ranks, or try to stand out in any real way. She just really likes working there.
It's a true love story:
Even when I'm far away, the convenience store and I are connected. In my mind's eye, I picture the brightly lit and bustling store, and I silently stroke my right hand, its nails neatly trimmed in order to better work the buttons on the cash register.
Keiko happily realizes that she's as much a part of the store as she is a part of it:
For breakfast I eat convenience store bread, for lunch I eat convenience store rice balls with something from the hot-food cabinet, and after work I'm often so tired I just buy something from the store and take it home for dinner...When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I'm as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.
But it's not just the products that appeal to her. In the convenience store, humanity takes on an easily identifiable hierarchy that makes sense to her: "Once we donned our uniforms, we were all equals, regardless of gender, age, or nationality — all simply store workers."
Sure, occasionally something strange or uncomfortable happens. Say a distressed person makes a scene. But Keiko knows that these are momentary disruptions.
A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated. The threatening atmosphere that had briefly permeated the store was swept away, and the customers again concentrated on buying their coffee and pastries as if nothing had happened.
Again and again, the analogies turn to bodies. The angry man who was forced out of the convenience store was a sickness, removed by the store's antibodies. The store quickly finds its balance again. And meanwhile, Keiko's body consumes food she bought at the store, and transmogrifies that food into Keiko's cells. She is a cell in the body of the store, which then becomes a cell in her body.
Murata, a celebrated author in Japan who supposedly still works in convenience stores part-time, is aware of the inherent weirdness of her concept. Convenience Store Woman isn't played entirely straight. It's almost impossible to picture Murata reading this scene aloud, in which Keiko becomes the subject of store gossip, without breaking out into laughter:
I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn't believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?
But as funny as it is (that tiny discount! Those sweaty hunks of chicken on a stick!) there's a pathos there, too. Keiko is more comfortable arranging sale displays than she is being acknowledged by her coworkers.
Convenience Store Woman works as both a satire of modern corporate culture and as a condemnation of the alienation of modern convenience culture. Keiko's radical embrace of the vapidity of a repetitive entry-level job could easily be interpreted as sarcasm, or as commentary on the incompatibility of work and a fulfilling life. Or maybe it's an embrace of artificiality, a full-throated love song to modern life.
At well under 200 pages, Convenience Store Woman is a slight read, the kind of book you can put away in a couple of big gulps over a long weekend. But Keiko is one of the most finely drawn fictional characters I've met in some time. Her utter indifference to normalcy makes her appealing, but her devotion to her job is what makes her endearing.
Like Bartleby, the Scrivener, another workplace comedy about an exceptionally bizarre character, you could read Convenience Store Woman a thousand different times and interpret it differently each time. Better still, every one of those thousand interpretations is true.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant