Convenience Store Woman
I stumbled upon “Convenience Store Woman” while perusing audiobook deals. Since I’m always interested in finding new Asian authors to read/listen to, I snapped it up. And boy, am I glad I did so.
“Convenience Store Woman” tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a woman who’s never managed to fit into society. Although the author never spells it out, it’s obvious that Keiko has some form of autism, maybe combined with a little sociopathy. As a child she reacts inappropriately to events in a way that causes multiple parent-teacher conferences at school until she decides just to stay quiet and blend in as much as possible. As an adult, she has learned to wear “masks” that she’s borrowed from other people, but she still never quite fits in. The only place she feels at home as at the local convenience store, where she’s worked as a part-time clerk for the past 18 years. But no one around her is willing to let her stay in her comfort zone. Everyone around her wonders why she’s still unmarried and working a dead-end job at the age of 36. When she meets a disaffected loser who also can’t fit in, the encounter proves to be life-changing. The question is, is Keiko going to become his victim as he sponges off of her, or will she finally understand her true calling in life?
The book is short, barely more than a novella, and full of laugh-out-loud moments as Keiko offers her unexpected take on events. She “adopts” a male coworker and keeps him as a kind of pet in order to make other people believe she’s in a relationship with a man. Her “kept man” keeps going off on misogynistic rants, which pass entirely over Keiko’s head. When a woman she barely knows tells her it’s her duty *not* to procreate in order not to pass on her weird, misfit genes, Keiko appreciates her logic and honesty, and is relieved to be spared the “ghastly” ordeal of sex.
At the same time, the story is full of musings about the nature of society and social belonging. Keiko is aware that all societies expel foreign objects, and she’s constantly in danger of becoming such a foreign object and being expelled. She is also befuddled when her sister is thrilled to discover she’s living with a complete loser of a man: it seems, Keiko, muses, that her sister would rather her be normal and have lots of problems than be abnormal but contented with her life. In the end, Keiko has an almost transcendent realization of her place in society and her role in life.
“Convenience Store Woman” is one of those books whose short length and spare style still hold more than their fair share of plot and philosophy. Entertaining and thought-provoking, it’s highly worth reading–or listening to, as in my case. Nancy Wu’s narration put me off a bit at first, until I realized her robotic rendition of Keiko’s thoughts was a deliberate expression of the character’s style. Wu’s rendition of the different characters, and her delicate fusion of humor and pathos, grew on me as the book progressed, however, and by the end I was hooked. I recommend the audio version for Wu’s narration alone, but the text version must also be delightful. Strongly recommended for readers looking for some contemporary literature in translation, or anyone wanting to read a story about a woman coming into her own, even if her own is not what everyone else thinks it should be.