‘When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.’
Lockdown has revolutionised the way many of us view workers such as cleaners, mail carriers and supermarket staff who are increasingly valued and appreciated for their essential services. I decided to dip into the head of Sayaka Murata’s protagonist Keiko and became mesmerised by the life-and-death attitude the character brings to her role at Smile Mart in Tokyo. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori in 2018, the novel explores Keiko’s journeying self-esteem. When the book opens, she is proud of her contribution to society as a convenience store worker, but as the voices of friends and family weigh in, her self-respect falters.
In an early scene, the store’s staff repeat the most important phrases for dealing with customers.
‘Yes, madam. Right away, madam.’
‘Yes, madam. Right away, madam.’
Apathetic employee Shiraha mutters, ‘Ugh, it’s just like a religion!’ and Keiko thinks to herself in all seriousness, ‘Of course it is.’
You see, Keiko has felt like an outsider all her life. She’s not interested in sex or family or finding a different job, even after eighteen years of loyalty to the Smile Mart. It’s at work where she feels most herself and has positive interactions with other people: satisfied customers and co-workers impressed by her efficient rice ball arrangement.
This short novel could have gone many ways. Keiko could have fallen in love as her friends and family so wanted her to. She might have found her sales skills led her to an impressive role in a high-rise. Despite its perceived premise, this is not a story about escaping the mundanity of store life and rising to greater heights. Murata questions who determines which heights are great and asks us to accept that Keiko truly is content in her role. Why is society so desperate for her to be ‘normal’ when she just arranged the new products display so perfectly, leading a customer to discover her new favourite snack? Is that not enough?
These questions are subtly explored beneath quirky prose. There’s a growing market for very literary easy-reads, and Murata’s dry humour makes hers a kooky gem for the masses. Describing Keiko’s habit of copying speech patterns, she takes a behaviour we all recognise as subconscious and slight and makes it absurd:
‘My speech is especially infected by everyone around me and is currently a mix of that of Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara. I think the same goes for most people.’
I await the inevitable pastel-filtered film, where the book’s observational humour will play so well.
Prepare to root for innocent Keiko through an onslaught of harshness. The novel’s antagonists are almost implausibly mean, telling Keiko that she is not normal, should get a life, should have babies, no, should never let her genes escape her, and this becomes overwhelming as every character other than Keiko is an antagonist. Her sole ally is the convenience store itself: it is her life. In the post-narrative space, we hope she will one day be valued as a person, not only as an employee.