Convenience Store Woman is a book about the outsider, the stranger, that individual who does not fit into modern society for reasons that range from obscure to obvious. Keiko hovers somewhere in the middle of that spectrum because to all outward appearances, she is as normal as anyone walking around. She has a job, lives in an apartment, pays her bills – in short, she is performing the functions of a human being in the world. But she isn’t normal. Keiko lacks the defining emotions that make a person part of a community. She does not understand relationships, love, or human interconnection. What she does understand is the convenience store environment. The title of Sayaka Murata’s work is apt because before Keiko is anything else, she is a convenience store woman.
What I like about this novel, aside from my biased love of Japanese authors, is that it chooses to explore a familiar topic in fiction – the sociopath – but it does so divorced from the common misconception that every sociopath is a psychopath, or someone out to see to the destruction of everyone and everything. Keiko shows many of the signs of sociopathic behavior – pathological lying, lack of remorse, shallow emotions, incapacity for love. The thoughts that run through her head would be off-putting, or even frightening, to the “normal” human being. This often occurs to Keiko throughout the course of the novel, and due to familial influences and pressures from society, she often struggles in the attempt to make herself appear more ordinary. But she does so in order to remain hidden from eyes that would otherwise be judgmental and even seek to separate her from the rest of humanity.
Keiko is never violent, though there are times when she sees violence as a simple answer to a problem – these are the most chilling aspects of this book because she sees physical action as such a casual answer. Rather, Keiko’s sociopathy becomes almost sympathetic due to Murata’s deft handling of her characterization. She is not the monster next door, but rather an extremely competent convenience store worker who wishes only to be just that. Her 19 years of service to the same store is her niche, and it is only when that niche is threatened by people who wish to see her appear more “normal” that things begin to spin out of control for Keiko.
I’m not a sociopath (that is exactly what a sociopath would probably say), but this aspect of the book resonated with me because when I finished college and entered the “real world,” I felt such a sense of alienation and cynicism that in no way did I want to be normal. I looked around at a world that did not resonate with the way in which I wanted to live, and all I could think to do was find my niche. I found it in part, but not in the complete way that Keiko does in Convenience Store Woman. She is not only good at her job, but dedicated in the way that every employer dreams. She is never late, never misses a day of work, and even life outside of the convenience store revolves around her ability to be a good worker – like making sure to eat enough and get enough sleep to be productive at work. Keiko is fulfilled in her job; a state of being that many people strive for their entire lives. This also seems to be commentary on what employers expect of employees, creating standards that could only be reached by an android wholly dedicated to work performance. Keiko, in many ways, resembles an artificial intelligence, a robot even, in her lack of empathy and dutiful behavior, as though she is programmed to be this one role. This multi-faceted look into a mental state that is nominally shunned by society at large is nothing short of amazing. That Murata manages to do this all in less than 200 pages is impressive still.
As I keep saying every time that I read one of these new Japanese authors (new to me), I am already planning to read some of Murata’s other work. I will be curious to see if she keeps a theme of sociopathic behavior throughout her work, or if she is more varied in her writing. I hope the latter.