I find the type of literature that receives accolades and awards in Canada to be very earnest and generally in a similar vein. I think everywhere in the English-speaking world, “serious” books tend to be favoured with the “serious” term “literature”, and that books written by men or books written about men or both tend to be deemed “serious literature”. But I feel like Canada has its own narrow and particular version of “serious literature”, and if someone is not living some kind of hard-scrabble life in the pages of your novel, you are not going to win the Governor General’s Award or even Canada Reads. There must be hard times or else how can we know it’s literature?
And this, friends, I find deeply boring. I don’t think you need Hard Times™ to make a work of fiction that is meaningful and relevant and life-changing. I even think that genre fiction is just as serious and meaningful as “literary” fiction. I know, I know. I hear you all out there, gasping and clutching your pearls. But I promise you, the way Ancillary Justice uses language to break down conceptions of gender is just as real and meaningful as the sparse economy of The Vegetarian in revealing the fundamental contradictions in the way society treats women.
Obviously, these earnest, serious books are not the only things being written in Canada. But they do tend to be the ones that win the awards. So I tend not to read the award-winning books in Canada. It’s much more interesting to me when an author takes a concept that is considered outside the realm of the serious and makes me think about some bigger issue. Which is why I do tend to read award winners in Japan. The two big prizes— Akutagawa and Naoki—spread the love across a wide range of works, maybe because they’re each awarded twice a year, rather than once, and because the Japanese publishing industry offers so much more to choose from than its Canadian counterpart. Either way, a big “Akutagawa Prize winner” splashed across the obi of a book is enough to make me pick it up and read the back at least. (And maybe I can only say this because my writer/reader self grew up outside the Japanese context and was force-fed CanLit. Native J-readers are probably rolling their eyes every time the Akutagawa Prize is announced.)
So when I came across the latest Akutagawa winner at my local bookstore, I was already interested. But then it had the intriguing title of Conbini Ningen (Convenience Store Human), and I was sold. I didn’t even read the back. I just sort of vaguely assumed that it would be the tale of someone who believed that if you can’t buy it at the conbini, you don’t need it, a fairly commonly held idea. But no! It is the tale of someone who works at said conbini! And has worked there for eighteen years! And to be honest, some of my appreciation of this book stems simply from the way it reveals some of the inner workings of the beloved conbini. But it is so much more than that!
Keiko is wrong. Or at least, that’s what she’s been made to believe her whole life. The things she is inclined to do or say are seriously frowned upon by everyone around her. After a few notable incidents as a child—whacking another child with a shovel to put an end to a scuffle with another child, flipping her teacher’s skirt to get her to shut up—she realizes that the way her mind works is not the way that the world wants it to work. So she goes into stealth mode: she speaks only when spoken too and watches her younger sister and the other people around her for clues on how to behave the “right” way. And she stays in stealth mode right through to university, her family worrying about her the whole time, wishing she would “get better.”
And then she gets a job at a convenience store, and her family rejoices. At last, Keiko is being “normal.” She is, at long last, a “tool the world can make use of”. But then she never leaves the convenience store. And when this sort of job is intended to be a stepping stone on the path to company employee to marriage to children, this is a problem for the rest of the world, despite the fact that Keiko is immensely satisfied with her life. A fact which is clearly seen in the way she describes the sounds of the convenience store in the opening paragraphs of the book. These sounds regulate her world; she hears them even after she leaves the convenience store and returns home to her small apartment. And to be honest, I would have happily read a book that did nothing but document her life at the conbini. The look behind the scenes was so fascinating. Conbini Ningen has definitely changed the way I interact with conbinis.
Which I’m sure this was not necessarily Murata’s goal in telling this tale, but given that she has spent her own adult life working at a conbini, I have no doubt that she would be pleased if this were to be a side effect of reading her book. But her main focus seems to be on how we create our identities within the confines of the society we live in (with a not-so-implicit criticism of the norms of that society and how and for what purpose we are socialized) and what even is identity anyway. Keiko is fully aware of the fact that she borrows mannerisms, ways of speaking, and other bits of personality from the people around her. She notes coolly that she is using the slight upspeak of a younger woman who works with her at the conbini, and she keeps an eye on the personal effects of a colleague her age so that she can make sure to shop at the same stores, so that she looks like a “normal” woman her age. At every step, Keiko is broadcasting the fact that she is merely mimicking what is expected of her as a woman of a certain age, clearly letting us know that she has no idea what any of these expectations mean or why people expect them of her.
I love seeing a character who is so comfortable with herself, but so aware that she is not “right”, that she does not fit into the structures of the society she finds herself in. It is a recurring conversation I have with a certain friend, that idea that we feel totally normal until we step outside. And then as women of the wrong color in worlds where another color is the dominant norm, we are reminded at every moment that we are weird, we do not belong. So Murata’s too-perfect portrayal of this strange tightrope walk felt extra real for me.
And as I commented in my notes while reading the book, “You know a writer is compelling when she has you literally rolling your eyes and making faces on the train at unpleasant characters.” Murata has somehow managed to reach into the darkest corners of Twitter and pull out a repugnant man who would be right at home on the most misogynistic Reddit threads and make him the turning point for Keiko. She painted such a painfully real portrait of Shiraha that I actually found myself biting my tongue, like I was going to start telling him where to shove it.
With the entire novel written in Keiko’s voice, we are always given Keiko’s view of people. And she is generous. Or rather, she just doesn’t see things from the perspective that we might see them. In this way, Murata gives us new insights into seemingly-old characters. The repellant misogynist becomes a figure worthy of compassion. And the store itself becomes almost human. The conbini is as much a character as any of the humans that populate the book, and Murata describes it as lovingly as a character like Keiko could possibly see it. Honestly, I hope this Akutagawa win encourages some publisher to commission her to write a memoir or something about her own life as a convenience store clerk. I had no idea that “convenience store” was a genre I wanted to read, but here we are.