Why be happy when you could be normal?*

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Keiko Furukara is thirty-six and works in a convenience store. She has no partner and very few friends, so her family are consistently worried about her, especially her younger sister, who gives her instructions on how to behave more normally so she can get on with people, but still despairs of her progress: ‘I simply can’t take it anymore. How can we make you normal? How much longer must I put up with this?’ However, Keiko herself is entirely unconcerned about the future. She’s happy the way she is, and her commitment to the store is absolute: she knows that she ought to put out cellophane noodle soup dishes when there are a lot of female customers, that a properly presented promotion of fried chicken skewers will help the store meet its targets, and that the most popular flavour of rice balls are spicy cod roe with cream cheese. She likes being in a place where there are clear rules she can follow, and she copies her co-workers’ speech and clothing so she can try to fit in – not because she really wants to, but because it leads to less hassle.

It’s this logic that leads Keiko to flirt with the idea of getting married to a deeply unpleasant man she meets at the store. Shiraha is an entitled freeloader, full of incel kool-aid, who fancies the idea of a relationship of convenience with Keiko so he won’t have to work himself. Her sister is horrified when she finds out what’s going on, and Keiko pleads with her: ‘will I be cured if I leave the convenience store? Or am I better staying working there? And should I kick Shiraha out? Or am I better with him here? Look, I’ll do whatever you say. I don’t mind either way, so please just instruct me in specific terms.’ Her sister only calms down when Shiraha pretends that Keiko is angry with him for meeting up with an ex-girlfriend, and that’s why she’s behaving so strangely. As Keiko observes, ‘She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine’. There are echoes here of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian in the absolute refusal to accept female boundaries.

A basic reading of Convenience Store Woman might view it as an indictment of capitalism. Keiko sees herself as a cog in the machine that is the convenience store, and believes that its rules of subservience are basic rules of living; she performs emotional labour for customers, anticipating their needs and greeting them with the correct, positive words. However, as Keiko’s acquaintances pour scorn on her job, it seems unclear how far they are actually living self-chosen lives, either, with the reverence for marriage and motherhood they’ve all internalised. I particularly enjoyed the performative anguish of the one friend, Miki, who hasn’t got married, when the rest are telling Keiko that she ‘must be getting desperate’: ‘”I’m getting desperate, too,” Miki chimed in. Then she added breezily: “But I’m always travelling abroad on business.”‘ 

In the anger of Keiko’s friends and family, we see the horror of those who have to confront the fact that a person – and God forbid, a woman – might actually find work more fulfilling than spending time with other people. But because Keiko’s job is so routine, we’re also forced to come face to face with our own assumptions about what we’re taught to see as ‘menial’ labour. If Keiko were writing a novel, or performing heart surgery, I imagine readers’ reactions to her would be very different. Furthermore, Keiko, despite her perfect work ethic, is less capitalism’s dream than its worst nightmare. She thinks her life is absolutely fine as it is. She doesn’t want anything, whether that’s a handsome husband, a pretty dress or a foreign holiday. Moreover, she really doesn’t care what anybody thinks about her, and doesn’t think there’s anything about herself she needs to change. With her total absence of insecurity, she may be a capitalist labourer, but she’s completely failing to be a capitalist consumer. A capitalist world populated by Keikos wouldn’t last very long; after all, someone has to buy fried chicken skewers from the convenience store.

Unlike novels such as Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The Rosie ProjectConvenience Store Woman is not about how people we think of as ‘weird’ are completely normal underneath after all, and want the same things as all the rest of us. Instead, it highlights that we all have deep weirdnesses that we cover over with a facade of normality – it’s just that some of us are better at it than others. It asks us to consider that people we think of as social rejects may not actually be seeking our sympathy, but regarding us with pity. No wonder it’s not giving readers very cosy feelings.

*NB. I haven’t actually read the Jeanette Winterson memoir that I took the title of this post from, but it fit so well that I couldn’t resist!

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12 thoughts on “Why be happy when you could be normal?*

  1. Fabulous review – you’ve explored the capitalist angle in a way I didn’t think enough about when I read the book! (And now I’m thinking about the word “convenience”: what is convenient for Shiraha, for Keiko, for her family and society at large, for her customers…)

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    • Thank you! Four years of teaching Marx coming through there… That’s a really good point about the word ‘convenience’, I’ll have to think about that some more.

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  2. Every time I see the title of Winterson’s memoir I’m forced to laugh. It’s so awful, but there is this plea behind it that borders on hysterics for some that make me laugh at their fear of the “abnormal.” It just seems so easy–be normal so you can be happy.

    As you got into capitalism, I remembered my days watching Ninja Warrior. Not the American one, but the original Ninja Warrior in Japan. Many contestants who were crowd favorites had jobs we would associate with failure in the U.S. One particular gentleman was a gas station attendant. He had done it proudly for years, and someone who serves in their job with pride is a good citizen indeed. I remember thinking how if we valued all jobs and stopped assigning them age or education levels in a negative way, people would see Keiko as both a normal person and a good citizen.

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    • I’ve watched a lot of the UK and US Nimja Warrior, and wanted to watch the Japanese one but it was hard to find it online! Yes, while it is disturbing that Keiko sees herself as literally part of the store (!) the book opens up some good questions about work and value.

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