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Before I moved to England I worked at a fast food restaurant for approximately four months. It was an interim period and the only temporary job I could find in my area. Maybe it was the knowledge that I’d soon be immersed in London culture, but the strange thing about working such a repetitive job was I found it oddly comforting. I quickly formed a routine of long shifts interspersed with periods of reading and deep sleep caused by the utter exhaustion of being on my feet all day. Such mindless uniform work where your duties, attire and even your attitude is regulated by a corporate entity that rigorously enforces such conformity allows you to blend in and not have to think. Keiko, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s “Convenience Store Woman”, finds her service job at such a chain store equally comforting. Partly this is because she finds human relationships so bewildering. From early childhood she never knew how to act correctly, but the store's strict policies and motivational team spirit provide her a framework in which to more easily conform and blend in. She integrates so well into the store's corporate mentality that after many years working the same part-time service job she feels like her personality is inextricably tied to the store and that she has no identity apart from it. 

It feels like Keiko's methodology is linked to Andy Warhol's philosophy about how “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald's. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald's. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald's. Peking and Moscow don't have anything beautiful yet.” Warhol used mass production to create art that was the same but different. In a similar way fast food restaurants and convenience store chains are the same but different. Warhol was also someone who felt like an outcast because of his looks and manner. It makes sense that such conformity and acceptance found in an environment with so clear and rigid rules would appear beautiful to both Warhol and Keiko because it subsumes personal inadequacies in favour of the ideals of a corporate entity. Of course, the horrific consequence of subscribing to such a mentality is that everything that is unique about an individual is levelled out.

I found it really interesting how this novel dealt with issues of loneliness in comparison to the recent book “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. Both are about isolated women who live completely for their work and find relationships outside of the duties of their job excruciatingly difficult because they literally don't understand social decorum. But I felt Convenience Store Woman” deals with this subject matter in a much more interesting way especially in the way Keiko forms a bond with another misfit who comes to work at the convenience store named Shiraha. He's outrageously misogynistic and socially outcast, but he doesn't believe in aligning himself with the goals of the convenience store. Nevertheless, Keiko finds it convenient to form a relationship with him because it will add to the sense she is normal. This really poignantly says something about the degree to which our relationships are built on convenience rather than authentic feeling.

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This relationship also creates an incidental element of humour in the novel. Keiko actually treats the self-concerned Shiraha as an animal that she must feed: “It’s the first time I’ve kept an animal at home, so it feels like having a pet, you see.” The novel “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” also revolves around its protagonist forming a relationship with a man, but “Convenience Store Woman” deals with it in a way which felt more realistic because it seems more likely that isolated individuals like this who operate outside of social norms would more naturally create alliances with each other. I also found it darkly funny how Keiko can't tell the difference between her friend's baby and her nephew: “Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others. But so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.” This is a humorous perspective but it's also tinged with sadness and disturbing in how Keiko feels so estranged from human emotions and the violent ways this disconnect manifested in some incidents early on in her life.

Keiko's philosophy for dealing with her aberrant personality is to align herself totally with the convenience store's mentality and needs. She considers how “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated.” She finds this consoling, but it's also terrifying in how she feels if she doesn't conform into society she will be expunge and wiped out. At one point some of her colleagues laugh about how it'd be better if Shiraha died because he doesn't contribute to society and Keiko reflects “if I ever became a foreign object, I’d no doubt be eliminated in much the same way.” So this story's extreme example points at many anxieties, fears and challenges that we face in learning how to function in society. This novel enjoyably satirises many aspects of modern corporate culture while also saying something poignant about isolation and the social pressure to conform.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSayaka Murata