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. However, 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, 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 odd, with its dehumanising automatic regimes?  And isn't there a fundamental oddness 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 a constrained social system creates constrained 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


Anonymous said...

This post is deeply offensive and full of harmful stereotypes about autistic people. I cannot believe you thought it would be acceptable to post something like this.

Fizzywoz said...

I second that. Very hurtful.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I'm sorry you feel like this. This is of course a report of a discussion, and please note that when two of our members suggested that the character's 'oddness' could be characterised as autism, another member pulled them up by suggesting that this wasn't a helpful line of thinking. And of course we then went on to discuss whether or not Keiko is indeed 'odd' or whether it is the society around her that is odd.