“They are enjoying being robots,” a Tokyo friend of mine once explained, after I had unfavorably compared 7-Eleven clerks to automatons. Ubiquitous and abundant, convenience stores in Japan are an icon of modern life. But, behind the clockwork efficiency, are they in fact manned by contented robots?

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
176 pages

“When morning comes, once again I’m a convenience store worker, a cog in society. This is the only way I can be a normal person.”

Thus speaks Keiko Furukura, the main character in Sayaka Murata’s debut novel “Convenience Store Woman,” which will be released in English this week.

In Japan, Murata has been a shooting star, bagging the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and being presented Vogue Japan’s Woman of the Year award, both in 2016. A former convenience store worker herself, Murata tells stories of women who don’t fit in, who aren’t ticking the boxes of middle class conformity.

“It started with my desire to create a main character who doesn’t do anything wrong, yet other people find her strange and think, ‘What the hell is she doing?'” says Murata.

Keiko is considered strange because, at 36, she is single and working in the ominously named “Smile Mart,” where she has been for the past 18 years. Her options, repeated ad nauseam by co-workers and family, are equally out of reach: get married, or at least a real job.

So far, so common, but Keiko’s problems run deeper. She feels removed from society, struggling since childhood to be like others and play the part of “an ordinary person” — whom, in the end, she considers a fictitious creature. Social pressure in Japan remains strong, but, as the novel shows, there may be shifts in the notion of how women — and men — should actually live.

“Some people feel similar to Keiko,” says Murata. “A lot of my readers have said they are losing the feeling of what is ‘normal’ in society.”

Keiko identifies with the store in an absorption that is almost physical, gaining a sense of self-worth and an identity she can’t find anywhere else. It’s a cruel double standard: While society frowns upon unmarried women in their 30s, their craving for validation makes them cheap, eager labor.

At Smile Mart, Keiko is reassured by simply following the rules, feeling genuine joy when the milk cartons line up neatly and the lunchboxes are restocked. Even her fashion and speech ape that of her coworkers. It is only when a new temp, the malcontent boor Shiraha, starts work at the store and then moves into Keiko’s apartment, that she ponders radical change.

“Convenience Store Woman” has been translated into Korean and French and sold almost a million copies in Germany. Despite this, some readers may wonder if the story is funny or sad — up to the very end, which lingers in ambiguity. From a Western perspective, it can be hard to relate to the Japanese work ethic, especially Keiko’s devotion to a job that goes nowhere.

Unlike the youthfully airy heroines in the novels of writer Banana Yoshimoto, Keiko is almost a Kafkaesque character, deadly earnest in absurd circumstance. At Smile Mart, you see, promoting the mango-chocolate bun is as serious as “cleanliness crackdown time.”

“Japanese readers laugh, and men have said they feel like the ending is scary,” says Murata. “(Non-Japanese) may laugh for different reasons to Japanese, but I’m happy to hear (they) also find the book funny.”

The social critique can be heavy-handed, especially in talks between Keiko and Shiraha. But then, writing from personal experience and with a novelist’s keen observation, Murata shines in describing the setting — the “pristine aquarium” — that is Keiko’s sole link to existence. In smooth, lucid prose, the convenience store comes to life in its inner workings and sounds, from the tinkle of the door chime to the beeps of the bar code scanner and the rattle of bottles in the refrigerator.

An earlier Murata story, “A Clean Marriage,” was about a couple who gladly forego sex in their marriage, while “Convenience Store Woman” shows a man and a woman cohabiting solely because it is practical, without interest in romance or sex. Is Murata, whose next novel is a “shocking tale” of a girl in the Nagano Prefecture countryside, disillusioned with romantic relationships?

“Personally, I think that sexless couples are kind of nice, and that there is real love,” she says. “Of course, there are a lot of married couples that keep their romance. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I think that life without sex is also nice.”

This acceptance of unorthodox lifestyles may be a part of Murata’s success. As the happily sexless husband admits in “A Clean Marriage”: “I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one who’s abnormal.”

“Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata will be published worldwide on June 12 by Grove Atlantic.

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