“Anyone who devotes their life to fighting society in order to be free must be pretty sincere about suffering.”
Convenience Store Woman is a Japanese novel by Sayaka Murata published in 2016. This is a brilliantly written satire towards society’s ideas of “being normal” forced upon everyone, and alienation of those who don't “fit in.” With dark humor, and an even darker, emotionless love story, this is one of the most realistic novels I have read.
(You buy the book here.)
Keiko is in her mid-thirties and working at a convenience store named Smile Mart. Ever since she was young, Keiko was a creature alienated from society, failing to understand basic human nature. While her “abnormality” is not specified in the book, she shows symptoms of autism and her eccentric behavior was a huge concern to her parents throughout her teenage years. However, during college, she was hired as an employee for a convenience store, when finally society accepted her to be “normal.”
She consequently found herself in a world that worked with a clear set of rules. On her first day, she saw a “training video” on how to be a good employee. For you and I, that video would be trivial, but for her, it was the first time anyone has ever told her how to be “human.” And hence started a chain of events: She became a “perfect worker” by simply following her job manual, making it “the manual of life.” As employees came and left, her personality changed with the way people around her acted. She had no personality of her own, and she didn’t feel the need to have one. Yet, she was still alienated from society as she kept on working in the convenience store without a “career path” or a suitable life partner. Then came in Shiraha, a cynical and bitter young man who is also a social outcast. He became spiteful against it (unlike her) and started to play the victim. As it was Keiko’s nature to absorb people's personality into her own, she did the same with Shiraha’s self-victimization. Soon realizing that she didn’t need to absorb personalities, she could very well defy this society who never accepted her and live her life the way she wanted.
The convenience store is her home and a big part of her personality, which ironically is the case with most of us as well. In recent years, working culture in many industries has become “work to live” to the extent where many people end up absorbing or imitating their co-workers to fit in, just like Keiko. We are constantly doing things to get a seal of approval from society to avoid being alienated while losing our individuality.
The book also does a great job of describing Japanese society (which can be generalized to many countries as well) and the pressure to obey what society dictates. Society has created a hierarchy in which it respects others who fit in, however sad their lack of individuality may be. But if you don’t have a mainstream career, society won’t respect you. This is yet another problem showcased in the book vividly.
I would recommend this book to everyone, no matter what our favorite genre is. This book is just so well written and will give you insights on life, work, and everything else that matters!
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