Alienation and modern existence

July 15, 2018

In this short Japanese novel, Murata infects us with an unassuming, but resounding alienation

Alienation and modern existence

Alienation is easy to experience, but tricky to convey. For Sayaka Murata, it’s her ears. They detect the rude vibrations. The little utterances and halts. The creaking of store shelves. Words spoken for the sake of speaking. But it’s also her tongue and eyes. Stale sandwiches. Monotony. Insipid buildings. In A Convenience Store Woman, Murata infects us with an unassuming, but resounding alienation.

This is a pitch perfect alienation novel, quirky but with limitations. Murata makes the feeling of estrangement cool and attractive; it assumes an intimacy that is soft and affable. You’ll be running to work at the nearest shop as the words ‘soulless’, ‘boring’, and ‘tiresome’ fade. You’ll do everything you can to be more like Keiko Furukura, the middle-aged woman who has spent half her life working in a convenience store. Modern work -- repetitive, deary, disconnected -- will appear charming and cozy.

A convenience store isn’t the most exciting setting for a novel, but Murata zooms into its tiniest details. There’s a vacuous beauty to its operation. From staff meetings, to practising greetings for customers, to the arrangement of the store and the planning of future stock. The novel begins with a superb sentence, "A convenience store is a world of sound." Murata renders the store vividly, evoking all the senses.

Keiko Furukura, the protagonist, struggles to belong. She finds people strange, and they find her strange too. Quite by accident, she starts working at a convenience store, where she slowly begins to disappear. Years pass, but she finds no reason to leave. People don’t question her strangeness there. The world of the store is controlled, predictable, but in it Keiko finds a space to belong and inhabit. She finds comfort in the work, where she loses her sense of self. Outside of the store, she’s awkward and can’t connect with others. Empathy seems impossible for her. She mimics people, their ways of dressing, speaking, and arguing. She observes the behaviour of others to study and replicate. She wants to exist without her strangeness being questioned.

The novel excels in portraying the need to fit in. Keiko Furukura’s alienation is relatable, and Murata doesn’t push an ideological dimension beyond it, as if alienation can be surmountable or even diminishable. There’s no hidden existential commentary here. The writing is clean and the first half of the novel is well-constructed. The narrative begins to waver when a new character, Shiraha, emerges to disturb the status quo of the store. This is where the story begins to feel forced and unnatural.

Alienation is easy to experience, but tricky to convey. For Sayaka Murata, it’s her ears. They detect the rude vibrations. Words spoken for the sake of speaking. But it’s also her tongue and eyes. Monotony. Insipid buildings.

Shiraha’s function is to serve as a critic of modern work and specifically of Keiko as a store worker, but this detracts. Besides Shiraha’s archetype of a disgruntled critic, there’s hardly any characterisation. It would have been even better if he was not included at all. Keiko’s private world, without having it spelled out through the analysis of another character, would have been purer. It’s the extra exposition through Shiraha’s dialogue, which forces a specific kind of interpretation and pulls away from the ‘uninhibited fiction’. In these places, the story appears disingenuous and strained. The purity of the fiction is blemished. It would have been stronger if things were left in between -- hanging.

To what extent should a novel be aware of itself, as a novel and the sum of its characters? Too much knowledge constrains the fiction, reducing ways to interpret it. I would have liked to slip back into Keiko’s absurdity and remain there without any disturbance. Just like its title, there’s a certain comfort and convenience to the story. It’s best read on a quiet day, preferably with a light drizzle, without people around.

A Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 176
Price: $18

Alienation and modern existence