I think the riskiest kind of novel is the one that tries to rescue us from mundane existence—by taking a closer look at mundane existence. If the tone falls flat, than the action is simply a series of discrete encounters, recreated on the page. In the best of these novels—from the work of Haruki Murakami to Albert Camus—the writer finds a tiny gap between the simple nature of things, and how they appear to us.
It is this second kind of novel that Sayaka Murata has written with Convenience Store Woman, winner of the Akutagawa Award in Japan and has sold some 600,000 copies. I met Murata-san in Tokyo a year or two ago at a festival. Granta, the magazine I used to edit, was publishing a story of hers in their Japan issue. I had been seeing Murata-san’s work for some years before I left my job and was thrilled by its power and strangeness.
I had always hesitated to publish her short stories, because there was a fine difference between oddness for its own sake, and oddity that points broadly to a bigger thematic space. Finally Yuka Igarashi at Granta came across that story, a hilarious and grim tale that imagined a future in which couples who do not make love—increasingly common among Japan’s younger generation, depending on which articles you read—can go to a service that enables them to have children.
Of course such services exist today, but in Murata-san’s story all the tension between her characters’ condition and their solution was drawn out so perfectly across 20 pages it was as if the invention itself was beside the point: the thrust of the story had to do with the ways in which couples’ box themselves into improbable solutions through problems of perception. A similar theme undergirds Murata-san’s short novel, Convenience Store Woman, which tells a swift, quietly devastating story about a woman who spends nearly 20 years behind the register.
What is so miraculous about this novel is that whereas most people would find tragedy in that last sentence, Murata-san has found a great deal of joy and pleasure. She has created a character who thrives where barcodes exist, where social norms can be flouted, where tentative connections to the world around you are, in fact, a plus.
I have read a great deal of Japanese fiction in the past five years as editor of Freeman’s, as a book critic and president of the National Book Critics Circle, and as the editor who began commissioning the Japan issue of Granta. The superflat style that reigns in Japan so rarely reaches behind the scrim of its poise to give you a clue as to why characters do what they do, why they are—so often—numb.
In this context, it is easy to say that Murata-san’s novel is a major breakthrough. Convenience Store Woman is not an explosion of candor, but it manages to both be cool to the touch and have depths of warmth in presenting to us a heroine who feels at a remove from the world around her. This is a fine high wire act to walk. One of the finest I have seen in a long time from so young a writer. Our English language world of letters would be so much the poorer if we did not have it available to readers here.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.
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