An Inconvenient Woman

For good or ill, the shopping season is upon us. As you finally find that perfect gift, and this is assuming you actually go out into the world to do your shopping, it is easy to forget about the employee ringing up your purchase. Retail work is not an easy gig, so it seems totally normal to me if a store employee just goes through the motions or does the bare minimum to collect a paycheck. The workers that stand out for me are those who seem super happy with their job, the store, and the whole retail experience. For some reason, that attitude has always seemed a little ‘off’ if not downright creepy. After reading the excellent Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, however, I think it’s time for me to reassess my reaction.

Keiko Furukura really, really, really likes her job at the Hiiromachi branch of the ‘Smile Mart’ convenience store in a suburb of Tokyo. She enthusiastically greets the customers, makes sure everything is stocked correctly for the season and always adheres to the company’s newest edicts. She is far from a mindless automaton however. She has used her 18 years at the Smile Mart to observe others’ puzzling behavior and learn how to be normal.

From an early age Keiko realizes that her way of thinking and feeling just doesn’t adhere to societal standards. When she sees two students fighting and the teacher orders them to stop, she hits one of them over the head with a spade, stopping the fight but winning no accolades. She simply does not understand human emotions and reactions. Worse still, she finds out that society will single you out and punish you for not fitting in. Her solution? Bury herself in her job at the Smile Mart, learn what is considered normal from other employees, and apply that knowledge in order to be left alone.

This all works pretty well until she reaches the age of 36 and her family begins questioning why she is still working at an entry-level job and has no boyfriend/husband. Enter Shiraha, a fellow employee who is lazy, misogynistic and prone to endlessly spouting out simplistic ‘ideas’ about the Stone Age and modern society. The one thing they have in common: a mistrust of normalcy. Perhaps Keiko can use that to her advantage…

Convenience Store Woman is told using a straightforward, yet elegant style that conveys Keiko’s unique perspective. While the ideas presented might be a bit off-putting for some at first, the author packages them in such a way as to make Keiko ultimately seem sympathetic. You come to see her as a somewhat damaged, by societal standards, individual carving out a tolerable existence in a hostile world. This short novella is well worth your reading time. Plus it will give you a new perspective while doing your holiday shopping.

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