Murata Sayaka 村田沙耶香. Konbini ningen コンビニ人間. Bungei Shunjū, 2016.
This won the 155th A-Prize, for early 2016.
Murata (b. 1979) began writing in 2003 and has already won the Mishima Prize; she’s another well-established writer, a bit late in her career for the A-Prize, at least as traditionally conceived. It may not be that way anymore, really.
The novel is told from the point of view of Keiko, a 36-year-old single woman who has been working at a convenience store – the same one – her entire adult life. As a part-timer (i.e., no benefits or security, although she works full-time, it seems). Early on she tried to get something more like a real job, but couldn’t make it through the interviews, and has settled into life as a convenience store person: thus the title, which you could play around with if you wanted – “convenient person” – but which really seems to refer to the fact that Keiko’s personality is utterly adapted to the routine of convenience store work.
This makes the book sound like it’s another meditation on the insecure employment situation of the post-Bubble generation(s), and it might have started out like that, but Keiko’s issue is something else. We’d probably say she’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but, importantly, the book doesn’t use a medical discourse. Keiko expresses it to herself as just having an impossible time figuring out what the world expects from her in terms of “normal” behavior, and understanding why. She’s perfectly willing to comply, but she has to have it spelled out for her. A childhood incident that’s related early on in the book is typical: on the playground at school a couple of boys get into a fight, and Keiko hears everybody shouting for teachers and yelling, “Make them stop!” So, very logically, Keiko picks up a shovel and brains one of the boys. It makes them stop, but of course then the school has to have a talk with Keiko and her parents – and Keiko never has quite figured out why.
She likes the convenience store job because there’s a manual that spells out everything that needs to be done, when, and how. She’s tremendously efficient if given this kind of program to follow, and as the story goes on it becomes clear that this is what she needs out of life. She feels like she belongs to the store – is part of the store. It’s where she feels needed and comfortable. But it’s not just that: the regimentation of the job provides order and structure for her life. Late in the book when she quits (we’ll get to that) she just goes to pieces without that structure. Can’t even crawl out of the closet in the morning (we’ll get to that too).
It’s not an emotional attachment to the job, though, at least in part because she doesn’t seem to have emotions. Never gets angry, sad, whatever. It’s that she needs this external input to know how to live her life. This is stressed a lot in the area of language: she is quite aware that she ends up talking like her co-workers, picking up phrases, intonations, and reactions from them. She assumes that this is how everybody’s personality is formed: by osmosis from the people around them. She seems to assume that nobody has any agency – certainly she has spent her life actively trying to suppress hers.
So this all makes the book sound like it’s an exploration of a psychological issue, and it may be that, but again: the book doesn’t indulge in that kind of terminology, and doesn’t encourage us to think of Keiko as “ill.” Instead, it frames things in a discourse of “normal” and “abnormal,” with Keiko failing to understand why the “normal” people consider her “abnormal” and why they care. This discourse is primarily verbalized, however, not by Keiko but by a man who comes into her life. This is Shiraha, another person in his 30s who has been unable to hold a “real” job. He gets a job at Keiko’s convenience store, but his “abnormality” is much more malignant than Keiko’s, manifesting itself in stalking female customers, and just generally being a skeevy character. He gets fired and ends up almost homeless before Keiko encounters him on the street a while later.
She takes him in and they live together for a while. It’s completely a relationship of convenience. He wants somewhere to hide from the world – from his unpaid bills, but also from everybody who judges him for being a useless guy, unemployed in his 30s. And Keiko wants her sister, her parents, and her old classmates to stop giving her the side-eye for being a part-timer, single, and a virgin at 36. Shiraha gives her cover, and she gives him shelter. But because Shiraha is so skeevy, he can’t accept this charity without incessantly reminding her of how gross he finds her, and how horribly unjust the world is for not accepting him. He has to keep asserting his superiority over her, to keep his male pride. The book is pretty explicity about this; Shiraha sees human society as essentially unchanged from hunter-gatherer days, when men had to be productive hunters and women productive child-bearers and anybody who couldn’t do that was kicked out of the tribe. He knows they’re on the verge of being kicked out of the tribe but still wants to assert his essential maleness.
Keiko, on the other hands, is characteristically emotionless about it all. She’s pleasantly surprised by how quickly her family and friends believe she’s successfully scored a man, and she’s happy that the deception is working. The rub comes when Shiraha insists she start interviewing for “real” (higher-paying) jobs (because there’s no way she can support both of them on a part-timer’s wages – that’s why she sleeps in the closet; and he sleeps in the bathtub), and quit the convenience store. That’s when, without structure, she falls completely apart. But then she steps into a convenience store and (spoiler alert) realizes where she belongs, and dumps Shiraha. Possibly the first time she’s asserted herself ever, and that’s where the story ends.
So there’s a lot going on in this book. A sincere and cage-rattling indictment of a society that can’t help but ostracize people who don’t conform, but an indictment that’s voiced by a thoroughly repulsive character. And Keiko, too, is suspect – she’s not skeevy or exploitative like Shiraha, and in fact is the perfect employee, the perfect cog in the machine – but there’s that shovel incident in her childhood that hovers over the book, reminding you that her emotional emptiness makes her capable of unblinking violence. And all of this in a tone that many readers will find humorous, as well as creepy. It’s memorable, that’s for sure.