Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so that she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life, but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?
I didn’t do the best job reading this book, and it’s my own fault. Knowing how popular and lauded it is – they don’t give the Akutagawa Prize to just anything! – I decided to tackle it in the original Japanese. Luckily the text is pretty straight forward, and while I had to look up rare kanji or readings it wasn’t too difficult. That being said I read more slowly in my second language than my first, meaning I was marinating in the text for quite a while.
And the middle of this novel is not something you want to marinate in.
Furukawa has to deal with all kinds of crap from her family, friends, and society in general. It set my teeth on edge because this is stuff I’ve seen or experienced here in Japan, verbatim. Coworkers are gossipy and while it may look like they’re concerned about your well being, often they’re more interested in a juicy story to pass around. Those who jump the expected track of college, full-time job, marriage, and kids have a lot to explain to friends and family, especially if they’re a woman. And even when you follow the plan you can be punished. My friend didn’t tell her employer about her marriage because she knew it would ruin her chances for a promotion. Why would you give more responsibility to someone who’s going to have a baby and quit soon, anyway?
So yeah, lots of anger on my part. If I were reading this in English, as probably should have, I would have been able to get through it quickly enough. My slower Japanese reading, though, made the middle part almost unbearable. The crap that one guy spews towards Furukawa made me particularly rage-y, and now and then I had to stop to look up a word, dragging out the ickyness. “Shady character.” “To be bored to death.” “Rail at.” Sigh.
That’s all on me, though. It’s a great book and deserving of all its praise, including in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s English translation. Just do yourself a favor and gulp it down in one or two sittings instead of dragging it out like I did.