TRANSLATOR: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Zen buddhist satori meets post-industrial service economy
‘In the judgement, the noble-minded consciousness…establishes a negative relationship towards its own purposes, its particular content, and its existence, and it does away with them. It is the heroism of service—the virtue that sacrifices singular being to the universal and thereby brings this universal into existence—the person who by himself abjures possession and consumption and, for the powers that be, acts and is actual.’ (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit)
‘You’re gonna have to serve somebody’ (Bob Dylan) Always difficult to like a book that becomes a fad. If a novel is so agreeable to a mainstream western audience then there must be something wrong with it, and by extension, the reader who rates it. At the risk of running headlong into classic orientalist tropes, ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is Zen Buddhist satori fused with a post-industrial service economy. It follows the intimate life of Keiko, a sleek thirty-something pliant Japanese woman who has no interest in sex. More than just a hollow screen upon which to project our desires, Keiko literally fashions her character out of a bricolage of stolen lifestyle choices at the level of dress, phrase and gesture. And the more she mirrors the behaviour of her acquaintances, the more she’s liked by them. In fact, Keiko’s technique of mimicking the conversational tics and consumer purchases of others is so convincing that one feels tempted to ‘try this at home.’ or, better, to go to work on fashioning the self. How many of us dream of relinquishing a high-pressure position and taking on a job that is as simple and straightforward as serving coffee, sandwiches and the occasional meat skewer in a 7/11? ‘Convenience Store Woman’ envisages such a possibility and makes it highly appealing. The protagonist's ingenuous devotion to her job is like a parody of Japanese 'attention to detail', and her desires dovetail so closely with what's in the shop's best interest that selling discount meat-skewers to hurried commuters will seem as dignified as conducting a traditional tea ceremony. Murata’s style complements the narrative content with its smooth even tone and its deft wielding of emotional charge via controlled narrative disclosure. If this is a result of translation then it's a moot point: it reads very well, with only one bum note, where the phrase ‘fuck right off’ is employed which, to my ear, sounds like something that should only be heard on the hockey-fields of Norfolk. Otherwise, the structuring conceits of the narrative are powerful enough that any surface flash at the level of the sentence would detract from its effect; as such, the novel is accessible in the best possible sense, serving western readers as a cross-cultural talking point. So what can Anglophone readers learn from the 'Convenience Store Woman'? Insofar as Japanese urban culture might be said to be more advanced in its rejection of religion and nationalism, then its current social issues would seem to herald our own in the near future. With the decline of high-tech industries and the falling birth rate, how will Japan’s young highly-educated population cope with having less wealth and prestige than their parents’ generation? Murata’s answer is largely conciliatory. The narrative depends on the protagonist’s willed ignorance and the readers suspension of disbelief. Firstly, there is the pleasure taken in Keiko’s extreme asexuality. What could be more appealing than a perfectly beautiful young woman who is content to be kind and places no physical demands on the reader? While on the one hand Murata grants us an image of an alternative lifestyle which is normally taboo, on the other hand Keiko’s hyperbolic asexuality serves to magnify the physical bonds which do occur or are at least suggested throughout the novel. In the manner of a Shklovskian defamiliarization technique, her restraint emphasises the small moments of ‘genuine’ intimacy between Keiko and her potential fiancé, even if these often prove to be a source of dramatic irony which disappoint conventional expectations.
Secondly, there’s the self-sustaining dignity of convenience store work. Keiko’s character never quite lands on the idea that the goods she sells are over-priced, unhealthy, and part of a larger system of unfair exchange which is destroying the planet. Towards the end, after Keiko has taken a shine to a pitiful, entitled, misogynistic and yet strangely charming slacker ‘incel’, whose comically reductive evolutionary account of men and women’s place in the world is disturbingly plausible, Murata leaves her protagonist with two choices: either break with norms by taking on the surface appearance of normal coupledom while enjoying her private victory over what is expected, or aestheticise service work as a noble calling which allows her to distribute her affections over a broad demographic and never once getting hung up on the goals of the nuclear family. Can we extract a feminist reading from a novel whose female protagonist completely eschews consumerism and bourgeois romantic fallacies to live on cheap noodles and devote her entire lifespan to the smooth functioning of a 7/11? What uplifting message can be gleaned from a story which shows how a woman can endure the loss of romantic intimacy so long as they can invest their abundant natural affections in the workplace, irrespective of who must benefit from her efforts? Yet in its redemption of unglamorous service work for its own sake, Murata's novel unifies a generation: the 90s slacker who can no longer afford to risk the day job, and whose resistance entails a stoic indifference to any illusory demands either above or below the needs of the human face of capital.