It’s a trend now. To talk about the non-conformists, the ones who don’t fit in and the ones who don’t want to.
In her 10th novel, Japanese fiction author Sayaka Murata doesn’t make up a story. She calmly and incredibly coolly takes us into the world of the straight face life of a “convenience store woman” in her internationally best-selling book of the same name.
It’s a weird book and it’s so much fun. We enter the world of a convenience store worker, Keiko, who is 36 years old and single, has never dated anyone and has worked part-time at the same store for the past 18 years.
No one seems to understand why she has worked in the Smile Mart for so long, why she yearns to be there and how it literally becomes her day and her night. But then she isn’t one to do things normally.
The first blow that Keiko gives us is a memory of her childhood, when, to break up a fight, she hits one of the boys on the head with a spade and doesn’t understand when everyone is shocked by what she does. They did say they wanted the fight to stop.
Deadpan and almost robotic, Keiko is the person we would tend to avoid — lacks emotion, copies emotion, and doesn’t get angry. You can’t trust Keiko but you can’t help but like her. Murata has so beautifully carved out Keiko’s character that you somehow don’t feel bad for her at all. Perhaps because you know that she already has everything; a job she lives for, a convenience store she loves and that’s enough for her.
Murata, through Keiko, takes us through the experience of milestones that are part of every single society in the world. Work, life-partner, marriage, children and how we tend to isolate and judge people who don’t fit in society’s norms.
Keiko’s counter, the young, lanky, and smelly Shiraha, is full of disdain. He joins the store and soon gets fired from the Smile Mart for not doing his duties. Figures that his only reason for taking the job was to find a woman, stalk her and marry her.
The utter stench his words produce when we meet him is more effective than repellent. He is a loathsome character and as we move through the book, and discover that he might be important, we try to like him when there is nothing at all to like.
But to be fair, Murata rushes through the existence of Shiraha. Maybe because she doesn’t want to marry the crazy beauty she has created with Keiko and perhaps she realises that the reader might relate more to Shiraha; whether they like him or not.
It’s a short read, ends in 162 pages, bound to finish in a few hours because of how perfectly normal it is. It’s not at all a judgey book but it takes us into such a quirky and strange journey through Keiko that we can’t help but reflect on how judgemental we can be. How she, without question, anger, regret, tries to adapt to her society, where she doesn’t fit in. She cleverly and poignantly highlights what we all do: mirror others, judge others for not fitting in molds and feel happy for them when they do.
At one point of the book, Keiko is told off by Shiraha who says, “You’re not human” to which Keiko thinks, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” a thought which will leave you with a smile and simple reflection on life’s ambitious rat race and the simplicity of the convenience store worker. For a moment you’ll want her contentment, her creepy thoughts (inertly thinking that you might have had one or two of those yourself) until you conveniently forget and go back to ignoring the simple, convenient things.