The book provokes some profound questions about the notions of normativity that we both impose and internalize
Imagine if your job was so intrinsically linked to your identity that to be without it would cause you to question your very reason for being. Extreme as it may sound, it is not entirely far-fetched considering we live in a society that glamorises over-working, where ‘busyness’ is too often mistaken for productivity, and where virtually no small talk is complete without knowing what someone ‘does for a living.’
Having changed jobs and even career paths multiple times, I can confirm that the existential vacuum is real. So you can only imagine my delight when June’s book club at Morocco Bound began with introductions that did not include people’s professions. Of course my own trajectory has never been quite as disturbing as that of Keiko, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman - the book that was up for discussion - after leaving her 18-year stint as a convenience store worker.
Convenience Store Woman, while both dark and absurd, offers what many of us found to be an intriguing caricature of human behaviour. Keiko’s character is oddly endearing yet somewhat inaccessible in her extreme emotional detachment from situations and difficulty relating to the normal world. Yet her job is highly interpersonal, demanding daily interactions with customers, each of whom must be greeted, reminded of the day’s offers and attended to individually at the till.
While Murata attributes this paradox to chance, that Keiko simply stumbled upon a vacancy at Smile Mart in her youth, there’s something to be said about the fervor with which she takes to the role. Relying on the store manual to a tee, her survival strategy is one that many of us subconsciously adopt when socially uncomfortable: to mimic those around us. “My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me,” she declares, going on to make the profound observation that “infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human.”
For a relatively short read - 162 pages, which most attendees finished in a single sitting - the book provokes some profound questions about the notions of normativity that we both impose and internalize. Should we commiserate Keiko’s circumstances as a single, 36-year old woman who aspires to nothing more than to continue working at a convenience store, or should we celebrate her for finding her true calling? Is she really content with her situation, earning a salary that barely covers a sanitary standard of living? Or do we take her seeming absence of neurotypical social skills to mean that she simply does not process situations in a way that most of us would recognise?
The idea that normality is an illusion only seems fitting as we emerge from the throes of a pandemic that has upended our very way of life. And to be discussing these questions in the same building - an act that was practically inconceivable just a few months ago - felt nothing less than surreal. Clearly, there are moments when we could all do with a manual to live by - a theme that came up more than once in the course of our conversations. After all, there is comfort in consistency, as there is a convenience in conforming.
And maybe that’s why we all need a convenience store - in whatever form it may take - in our lives.
Saanya is a London-based writer with professional experience across the UK, UAE and India. You can read her blog here or follow her book-themed Instagram here.