Monday, December 31, 2018

Reading Group: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Jenny's suggestion, this very short novel has been a runaway hit in its author's native Japan, and in translation worldwide. It's the first-person narration of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old single woman who failed to fit into society as either a child or an adult, but then at the age of eighteen found her metier in the brightly-lit, regimented and sterile world of a convenience store, where, to the dismay of her family, she still works and which is her whole life. 'Even when I'm far away,' she tells us, 'the convenience store and I are connected', and 'When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel I'm as much part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine'.

Keiko's existence is disrupted however by the advent of a new young male recruit Shiraha who feels no such allegiance to the store, constantly found to be slacking and openly and repeatedly questioning its world and the conventional structures of Japanese society to which Keiko's family and friends keep trying to get her to conform. Very soon he is sacked, and Keiko comes up with a solution for them both: if he comes and lives in her flat and is kept by her, he will not need to work and will be able to hide away from the world he so despises, and her family will assume a sexual relationship and will finally leave her alone.

Everyone present said that they had found the book a fascinating, even compelling read, with its light but deadpan and repetitive prose (codifying the world of the store and its workings), but were left unmoved. Clare said she had found it slight, and others agreed, and most people ended up not knowing quite what to make of it. Mainly, people didn't know what to make of Keiko herself. Jenny said she assumed she was autistic. She lacks the moral and emotional sense of most other people: as a child she stopped an argument between two boys by hitting one over the head with a spade and was then puzzled by people's horrified reactions; while all the other children peered with empathy and sorrow at a pretty dead bird, she suggested taking it home and cooking it. Later, she turned to her younger sister for instructions on how to behave, and still does so, and consciously mimics the behaviour, speech patterns and clothes of others - 'My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me' - which John, a psychologist, said is a recently acknowledged stratagem in female autism. When Shiraha treats her badly, demanding and then despising the food she provides and taking to sitting all day in her bath so that she has to go out and use a public one, her only reaction is fascination. Clare, also a psychologist, said that she didn't find it particularly useful to try to pin a specific label on Keiko: it was more satisfying just to accept her as odd.

I said, But isn't part of the point of the book that it's not just Keiko who is odd, and possibly autistic, but the society around her? Surely the convenience store itself into which she fits so snugly - 'a cog in society' as she puts it, 'the only way I can be a normal person' - and which, apparently is such a huge aspect of Japanese society, is also autistically odd, with its dehumanising automatic regimes?  And isn't there a kind of autism in the 'normal' societal attitudes of her friends and family, who it seems would prefer her to have any sort of relationship, even an unhappy one, than to be single and happy? Mark had expressed amazement that this book could have become such an international bestseller, but some of us had read that the reason it had become such a success in Japan (and in consequence elsewhere) was that it had hit a particular nerve there, homing in on a development in Japanese society whereby young people are rejecting relationships and turning to singledom and celibacy, and young men like Shiraha turning their backs on the world and incarcerating themselves in their homes.

For most of us, however, there seemed something of a conundrum. Is Keiko at odds with society, or is she one of its 'cogs'? The book seemed to want it both ways. I suppose you could draw the conclusion that an autistic social system creates autistic individuals, but it did seem hard to get your head around what seemed like a lack of thematic logic. Some reviewers seem to have taken the book as a satire, but in this way it lacked the logic of satire, and no one in our group found the book funny in the ways reviewers have suggested it is.

Our discussion didn't last very long - there didn't seem a great deal to say - and we soon dissolved into discussions about supermarkets, forgetting the book altogether.

Doug had failed to turn up, having forgotten the meeting, and wrote afterwards that it was perhaps something to do with the fact that he hadn't liked the book at all.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Friday, December 14, 2018

New Publication: "Kiss' on MIR Online



I'm very pleased to say that my story, 'Kiss', which was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize in the Spring, has been chosen by editor Toby Litt for publication on the Mechanics Institute Review Online, and is now up and can be read. This is one of the stories I wrote about in my post on research in writing fiction. Many thanks to Toby Litt and to publisher and copyeditor Peter Coles.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Young Writer Award: The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman and KIngs of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth




Looks like I am going to manage to achieve my aim and finish reading the shortlisted books before the announcement of the winner on Thursday. Not much else has got done, apart from the editing of my short story, 'Kiss', which was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize in the Spring and has now been chosen by Toby Litt for publication on the Mechanics' Institute Review Online (which, unusually for a literary magazine, provides professional copyediting.)

Sitting reading all day long for a whole week and doing nothing much else besides is something I haven't done since I was a child, so there was a certain comforting nostalgia about it all, and it was an experience strangely echoed in Laura Freeman's shortlisted The Reading Cure: How Books Restored my Appetite. This is a bravely frank book in which Laura describes how she stopped eating at the age of thirteen, was diagnosed anorexic and prescribed bed rest, and having always been 'a bookish person', spent two years working her way through book after book - a book a day: it's quite clear she is a faster reader than I! - and she does say at one point that books were her gluttony. With the help of her mother, she managed to control the illness enough to go to university and hold down a job as a journalist on a national newspaper, but still had difficulties with food. However, reading Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Hunting Man, and its descriptions of hunting trips 'fortified' by breakfasts of boiled eggs and cocoa, marked the beginning of a change for Laura in her attitude to food which developed throughout her subsequent reading. She reads the whole of Dickens (in just over a year!) with its vivid depictions of characters' relationships to food (through from starvation to relish to gluttony), the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee, the diaries of Virginia Woolf (who had her own difficult relationship with food) and a food-obsessed eighteenth century parson, the cookery writers M F K Fisher and Elizabeth David, and a good deal more (there are 169 books referenced in the bibliography).

My feeling of nostalgia was reinforced by the fact that much of this reading is Victorian or early-twentieth-century, and there's a fair amount of jolly upper-class 'munching' and so on which Laura wittily mimics and which took me back to the world that the books of my childhood introduced me to. (I began to wonder if contemporary writers don't write much about food, and the only two I can recall doing so with relish and sensuality are Michelle Roberts and Helen Simpson.) In addition, Laura also returned to her childhood reading, most of which was indeed my own: The Wind in the Willows, T H White, Little Women, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Pooh Bear, the Katy books and so on, though Harry Potter was way after my time. Laura rekindled for me the feeling of sitting on my bed with my tastebuds titillated as I read about the picnic feast in The Wind in the Willows, but I have to say that some of the lists of rich, buttery, creamy or syrup-drenched foods that she creates as she extracts them from her reading did make me feel queasy at times. In spite of the book's title, Laura is quite open about the fact that she is not absolutely cured, and makes clear that this is no self-help book, but simply a description of what she feels has worked for her. It's a brave book in its self-revelation, and is a testament to the restorative power of literature and reading.

And now from the sedentary pursuit of reading to sweeping down a river and over rapids, canoeing in the opposite direction to spawning salmon: Adam Weymouth's Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey. I was gripped from the start by the explanation of the life cycle of the king salmon, and now I am involved in the lives of those whose people have lived for generations alongside the river and whose livelihoods are being destroyed by the drop in fish numbers and, ultimately I guess, climate change. An important book, I can see already.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Young Writer Award: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar



Well, here's another quite amazing debut novel - a dazzling almost-500-pager set in the eighteenth century, the story of a widowed merchant seaman and a courtesan whose fortunes come together over a 'mermaid' with which the ship's captain returns from a voyage, having sold the vessel to obtain it. This sets in train a breathtaking and involving story in which characters battle the desires, longings and fears the mermaid stands for, and women in particular try to steer a course between the only options apart from lady's companion available to any genteel woman without means at that point in history: that of wife or courtesan. Taking place in the high-class brothel and the shipping worlds of eighteenth-century London, the book is rich in characters, each delineated with great insight and humanity, and in vivid historical detail. In many ways the novel adopts the mode and ethos of the true eighteenth-century novel - there is the same wry but humane irony of tone one finds in Fielding, the same third-person objectivity of narration, a picaresque feel to the plot, and an admirable, indeed enviable, authenticity of language. However, the novel also slyly undercuts that historical form, most obviously by concentrating on the lives and predicaments of eighteenth-century women (revealing in the process little-aired facts about their personal and sexual hygiene), and by concerning itself deeply with the psychology and interiority of the characters - all lent psychological immediacy and intimacy by the contemporary mode of present-tense narration. And it's very moving.

It's no wonder that this book has been shortlisted for so many prizes.