What is the lesson of the eccentric book? Perhaps mostly that we should not think it is so eccentric? The obvious analogy between working in a store as a convenience to customers and living in a normal way that is convenient for everyone else extends to the idea of a hero or heroine. This is a there and back again story, where nothing is new or resolved. Everyone pretty much goes back to how they started. Why should the hero of a story follow a development you find convenient?
There’s an ironic series of scenes between the protagonist, Keiko, and her loafer, no-good boyfriend, where we (and she) see some of the parallels between the way he lives as a parasite and the way she lives detached from friends and family. There is a strong line of argument about women’s role in modern Japanese society and the social pressure to get married and have children, and many of the male characters feel to an English reader like they are from a much earlier generation.
But, as this review says, ‘The Japanese title is more accurately translated as “Convenience Store Human,” which got me wondering why Western readers were so fixated on the protagonist’s femininity.’ There is a feminist story here, but there is also much more than that.
Keiko, the protagonist, shows some traits of dissociation. As well as being emotionally detached and using mirroring behaviour, she takes things very literally and often doesn’t understand why people react to situations the way they do. But she is also intelligent, independent, and capable. Everyone’s intense reactions to whether she does or does not have a boyfriend aren’t irritating to her, she just finds them weird. She frequently talks about not understanding why they feel excited that she has a boyfriend and she is astonished that they take gossip about her love life more seriously than their work in the store.
The massive irony is that in order to avoid being inconvenient to everyone, she is living with her boyfriend in a totally asexual relationship of convenience. He is a parasite. Keiko’s emotionless view of things is not neutral. She has been violent in the past, shows a heartless reaction to a baby crying, and seems indifferent to whether her mother is happy or not. The boyfriend is mired in a reactionary view of society like the Stone Age, prizing an outdated maleness. Keiko is similarly isolated in a view of social norms where she can only find value in being convenient to strangers.
In a British novel this would be a metaphor for patriarchy: women are the put-upon conveniences of male dominated society. But Keiko loves working in the store. It wasn’t clear to me whether the ending (where she goes back to working in the store and (presumably) escapes the demands of her paleo boyfriend) was celebratory or ironic. The message is that there’s no place for her in ‘normal’ society other than her menial job, but she is fulfilled by her work. If this is false consciousness why not make the ending darker. Am I missing the gallows humour?
All of which is to say, I don’t know why this book is so popular over here. Does everyone else have a thorough grasp of Japanese culture that enables them to read this book? Some do, but the reviews I saw were written from a very Western perspective. The New Yorker called it a ‘grim post-capitalist reverie’ and described Keiko as an anti-Bartleby: this is a pretty lame reading of Bartleby, who is hollow and soulless and unable to be saved, rather then the usual motif of oppressive, repetitive capitalism.
The books seems to be two things: a response to contemporary laws about moral education and an allegory of modern Japanese society.
According to The Japan Times:
“Konbini Ningen” takes on special significance in light of the recent controversy surrounding the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s approach to education and how it wants to socialize young people.
The education ministry plans to promote morals (dōtoku) into a fully fledged scholastic subject for elementary schools by 2018, and for junior high schools by 2019. Morals has always been taught in school, but it was not graded, and thus not strictly administered by the ministry. The Asahi Shimbun was alarmed by the policy, saying that “evaluating” a student’s grasp of morals is a difficult endeavor, and that an understanding of it tends to be subjective. The ministry, however, has insisted that a child’s acquisition of morals will not be “scored” by means of a weighted grading system, but rather explained through “written evaluations.”
The book is a strong moral argument in favour of not promoting a mono-ethical culture and of trying to have empathy for people without ‘normal views’. But as an allegory of modern Japan it seems more ambivalent. What happens to the good-for-nothing boyfriend after Keiko leaves him for the convenience store? Why is it a good thing that her life is subsumed into the life of the store, a machine made version of the society she has left behind? The book has shown us that the store had problems finding labour, that it drains pleasure from Keiko’s life, that it gives people injuries at work…
It’s clear the book argues that the insistence on normalisation is part of why this is happening, but the parallel between Keiko and the paleo boyfriend also make this book a little bit tragic. That’s not the author’s expressed intention, however. She said in an interview with the FT:
“People think she is having a hard time, but she is so pure, she doesn’t care at all. She has no doubts. I wish I could live like her, and not think about others,” says Murata, who is herself single and lives in central Tokyo.
Murata says she really does want to lionise the idea of an entirely solitary person.
“In the past, I think the word ‘lonely’ had a negative meaning. Now the sense of the word is different. It depends on the person, but there are more people who actively like solitude. Eating alone. Coming to convenience stores alone . . . many of the central roles in my novels are suffering from adapting to a changing world. They are cornered and hunted by the eyes of society and treated as strange. They would be perfectly happy living alone, but society hounds them for wanting that.”
The book is a strong challenge to supposedly conventional ideas of what makes someone happy. There’s a clear moral view that Keiko should be able to live in as isolationist as way as she likes. But is it clear eyed about the consequences of that?
Keiko says the store allows her to be ‘disguised as a normal person’. That doesn’t sound like the victory it is presented as. Is Murata in favour of false consciousness? Does that make her a reactionary arguing against conservatives?
The more you think about this book, the less you ought to know what to think about it. I would now like to read Murata’s other translated novels.