This is my second encounter with Sayaka Murata, and my first oriented my reading of the second. Convenience Store Woman (in Japanese, Konbini Ningen – Human of the convenience store) is a strange literary object. We see the world through the eyes of Keiko, a 36yo single young woman who has worked as a lowly store clerk of a convenience store for 18 years, when most of her coworkers and managers pass before getting something better. Keiko has some difficulty to react the way other people expect her to, to read other people’s emotions or double-entendre. Keiko is probably neuro-atypical or Aspergers or something on the autistic spectrum, as Americans define, but nothing of the sort is ever expressed. Contrary to many American reviewers, I would argue that this is not important.
Sayaka Murata’s novella is a darkly sarcastic attack against Japanese conformism – a theme that was also strongly present in Life Ceremony. People are expected to marry, to get on with their career and onto the property ladder. People who don’t conform have no space, they are criticized by all and shunned by their own family. Keiko’s sister is so desperate for her to show a normal behavior that she pleads and cries out, but when Keiko pretends to have a boyfriend (in fact, an arrogant loser that would probably qualify as an incel in the US and a freeloading roommate), the whole family is relieved.
But to say that this book is only a scathing social criticism would miss the full point, and I even find disturbing that many reviewers on Goodreads find it funny. This is depressing and disturbing, some scenes really crept me out and I rather feared that the story would go off rails into violent or gore territory! Sayaka Murata’s Keiko walks a very fine line between being an odd, quirky, shy character who finds comfort in the ultra-codified little world of the convenience store, and being a perfect doll who interpret humans the way a bot sometimes makes mistakes. In my opinion, the microcosm of the convenience store is also a portrait of soul-grinding capitalism that make employees wear a smiling face and live like machines until they are discarded.
Having read her collection Life Ceremony, I know what Sayaka Murata is capable of: her Convenience Store Woman is certainly not to be underestimated, and if I were you, I’d quickly finish my shopping, not refusing to buy the onigiri she advertises on sales and not linger there after dark.