Quirky. Irresistible. Brilliant. Perfect. These are words that people on Goodreads who’ve reviewed Convenience Store Woman used to describe Sayaka Murata’s novella. I seriously could not disagree more. Instead of adjectives, I had questions: Is this satire? Is it a horror novella? Is it about domestic abuse? Is it a glimpse into Japan, whose population “birthrate has dropped to a historic level,” and society’s responding efforts to manipulate single people into reproducing for the good of the country? During one full hour while listening to the audio book, narrated by Nancy Wu, I felt sick to my stomach — and that is not hyperbole. But let me back up.
Convenience Store Woman is about Keiko Furukura, a woman who has worked part-time at a convenience store for eighteen years (she’s now 36). Her parents give her an allowance, so there is no need to work more. Constantly harassed by co-workers, friends, and family, Keiko wants to know why she can’t continue to be happy with her life, and why everyone demands she get a “proper” job, marry, and reproduce. Keiko has always been odd. During her girlhood, when she found a dead bird in the park, she was confused by everyone’s sadness — and then perplexed by their horror when she insisted they eat the dead bird. In order to fit in, Keiko adopts the facial expressions, fashion choices, and modes of speaking from those around her, making her seem a freakish conglomeration. I was appalled by the pressure to conform by those around Keiko, but it’s not unheard of in any country.
I admit I was drawn in at first. Keiko is rule-oriented, and I could relate: I, too, am a woman in her mid-30s with a part-time job and no children. I thrive on boundaries and knowing what is right and wrong. Keiko’s desire to match society and yet hide enough to get people to leave her alone was the most interesting theme in the novel. As far as the writing goes, I thoroughly enjoyed Sayaka Murata’s descriptions of the convenience store: the customers, the specials, the sounds, the morning drill, the way Keiko predicts what will sell best based on various circumstances.
And then Shiraha, another mid-30s disappointment, is hired at the convenience store. Keiko is horrified that Shiraha is a slacker who claims he only took the job so he could find a wife. Shiraha threw the whole book into a dark place I could not abide. He’s fired for propositioning customers and deemed a pervert by his co-workers. Yet, he incessantly tells Keiko how worthless she is — that her uterus is old, that she’s a drag on society, yet women have it easier than men — and says things haven’t changed since “the stone age.” See, Shiraha has these theories about the hunter/gatherer days and how Japan continues to operate the same way, and he won’t shut up about them. Those long diatribes are repeated — not summarized –REPEATED. The novella would be about 75 pages shorter if the unnecessary repetition were edited out.
Shiraha is a psychopath. He is abusive, manipulative, barely verbal until in a situation that would hurt his ability to prey on Keiko; then, he’s well spoken and charming. As I was driving home from work, listening to Wu narrate, my stomach started to churn when Shiraha told Keiko it might help her that she’s a virgin, but she’s so old it doesn’t matter anyway. He told her that he could never “get it up” with her. That she would never fit in and become pregnant to satisfy her family because he would never “penetrate” her. Meanwhile, he demands food, makes Keiko lie to her co-workers, and physically drags her around by her arm at the end of the book.
In general, I felt like Convenience Store Woman sledge-hammered away on the message that Japanese people must fit into society, and that women are more burdened because they must create the next generations. A happy woman is not enough — she must serve her purpose for the greater good. Women should also reinforce societal rules by shaming friends, sisters, daughters, and co-workers into conformity. I started getting Only Ever Yours vibes, a book that upset me for ages.
I feel like I read a different book than the one everyone raved about on Goodreads. I feel like I was stuck in a domestic violence/thriller novel, one that had an odd-ball leading lady. Perhaps the translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori is done poorly. Perhaps Nancy Wu’s choice to make Shiraha sound like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High affected the way I perceived him. In Wu’s hands, Shiraha is perpetually confused. “Whhuuuuut? Uuuuummmmm . . . . . . . . I guess.” Wu dragged out Shiraha’s vowels, giving him an idiotic tone to top off his abusive words. Regardless, his words are clear no matter how they are delivered.