In “There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job,” author Kikuko Tsumura details the everyday struggles of modern life, focusing on our complicated relationships with work.
Taking her place among a growing number of exceptional female writers in Japan, Tsumura deftly handles work habits and relationships, stereotypes and expectations for success, all of which are set against a repetitious, unending search for what is valuable and valued. The novel unfolds as a profound meditation on contemporary society and what makes work meaningful.
Translated by Polly Barton
The novel’s unnamed narrator, 36 years old and single, has no choice but to move in with her parents after quitting her 14-year career due to burnout syndrome. When her unemployment insurance runs out, she prepares to reenter the workforce with a dry matter-of-factness, saying, “I’d sat down one day in front of my recruiter and informed her that I wanted a job as close as possible to my house — ideally, something along the lines of sitting all day in a chair, overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skincare products.”
Translated in a droll and understated style by Polly Barton, part of the novel’s appeal lies in the narrator’s distinct worldview and her deadpan humor that allows the surreal, metaphysical connections in the novel to bubble beneath the surface of her seemingly dull, day-to-day existence.
In her attempts to find work that is meaningless and undemanding, the narrator goes through five jobs over the course of a year. She checks surveillance footage of a novelist who has unknowingly received priceless gems in a covert smuggling scheme; works as an assistant to the enigmatic Ms. Eriguchi and writes pre-recorded advertisements; fills in for Mr. Kiyota, whose life work is creating enlightening content to go on rice cracker packages but had to take a mental health break after failing to find a wife; puts up posters in a neighborhood and inadvertently gains a mysterious adversary who posts competing signage; and joins a national park’s maintenance crew to monitor the forest from a small hut surrounded by peculiarities such as a local soccer team’s lost apparel, missing breadfruit and a book from her pre-burnout life.
As our narrator navigates each workplace’s demands and relationships with various coworkers, she and the reader gradually become aware of a meaning underlying all endeavors in life, even those that seem bizarre. Each of the jobs, despite the increasingly absurd series of events, validates the interconnectedness of all actions. It’s the kind of novel that presents a swathe of tangled threads, trusting the reader to weave together the connections on their own. After the last page, I immediately started again, excited to unravel the nuances of each section.
“I was first drawn to the boldness of the concept. I remember reading a summary before reading the text itself and just thinking, ‘There’s no way that something like that can work,’” says translator Barton in an interview with The Japan Times. “And then I found myself as a reader so drawn in, just wanting to immerse in that world forever. It seemed like such a coup, given that it was a book entirely about work, that we find out really nothing about the private life of the narrator.
“And the other thing was the voice, which seemed so different from a lot of other voices in Japanese fiction, especially female ones. (It had) qualities that wouldn’t necessarily be seen as conventional positives — dry and wise-cracking, often sarcastic or even acerbic, a bit neurotic, and maybe most importantly, sometimes angry. I felt like that human quality to (the narrator) was very attractive, and important, somehow. Plus I love the sense of humor so much — that kind of off-key deadpan humor is so very much my taste.”
The novel finishes with a dose of wisdom about karma, extolling trust in the “ups and downs” of the universe. The narrator solves the jewel smuggling caper, observes the mysterious power of spoken words, creates meaning in the mundane and subverts the activities of a cult. Finally, she helps another victim of burnout syndrome to reenter society, all while taking steps in her own recovery toward essential work.
For Tsumura, who sets many of her stories within the realm of working life, the English publication of her book is well-timed, as the ongoing pandemic and an increase in remote work has forced many people to reevaluate their working lives and how it affects their search for a fulfilling life.
Tsumura recently told Barton that, “The narrator changes jobs many times, experiencing both satisfaction and frustration, but ultimately, she keeps on moving forward, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes pushed on by her situation. I’d like it if this would help readers to know that even if they encounter feelings of despair in their working lives, it doesn’t have to be the end. Something else will come around.”
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