The fantasy of owning a combination bookstore and bar has long buoyed me through bouts of tedium that are part of corporate life. The shop would be enlivened by a roster of visiting authors, and we would pair booze with their books for reading/tasting events. While this venture remains unrealized for now, I’ve started mentally preparing by pairing booze with my own reading list and writing down the results. In short, I have concocted an elaborate ruse to drink more booze and read more books.
In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is the punkiest heroine I’ve met on the page since Viv Albertine’s 2015 memoir of her time in the Slits, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
We meet Keiko when she’s thirty-six, having worked for the last eighteen years part-time at a convenience store, the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. It’s a job she started for spare money while at university and, much to the consternation of her family and friends, has never left. In the first twelve pages we also learn that her family is loving and intact—two parents, one younger sister—as well as three anecdotes from her childhood that demonstrate Keiko sees the world differently, in a way that sometimes upsets other people. The first and most innnocuous of these is when she was in nursery school and finds a dead bird in the park, which she suggests they take home and cook for dinner since daddy likes yakitori. Her bewildered mother insists they bury it instead, the logic of which seems especially suspect to Keiko since an improvised funeral for Mr. Budgie requires “murdering flowers.”
While she manages to get through high school and university without creating more of the troubling incidents from her childhood, she is mostly a loner and enters adulthood with the acute feeling that she “had to be cured.” While not exactly a cure, the convenience store offers a reprieve from the undecipherable rules of the outside world that have previously gotten her into trouble.
Inside the brightly lit box, Keiko finds a world she can make sense of, where things happen predictably. Each shift starts with the crew repeating in unison the scripted phrases they use with customers, starting and ending with “Irasshaimasé!”, which means, “Welcome, please come in!” A jingle of coins in a pocket indicates a customer who just wants to buy cigarettes or a newspaper. Hot weather means sandwiches will sell well, cold weather means croquettes will be hot. There are policies and procedures, from what to wear to when to press the alarm. The alarm is never pressed, although she comes close one day when one customer starts yelling at another customer. The manager handles the matter efficiently, and Keiko observes one of the books recurring themes about society and all its microcosms:
A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated.
The staff may change—she’s on manager #8 of her tenure when we meet her—but for the most part things at the convenience store stay, mercifully, nay blissfully for Keiko, the same. This is also good for the store: Keiko is a kick-ass convenience store worker.
Trying to decide what drink to pair with Convenience Store Woman was challenging. Keiko never drinks alcohol in the book, a fact that’s not commented on but makes implicit sense given the responsibility she feels to keep herself in shape “for the sake of the store.” Food and drink is strictly transactional for Keiko. She “heat treats” rather than cooks her food, and at dinner she stuffs “the food before me into my body so that I would be fit to work again tomorrow.”
One fateful evening—more on this later—while attempting to console a former colleague, Shiraha, she makes him a cup of jasmine tea while she sticks to hot water.
I hadn’t added a teabag since I didn’t really feel any need to drink flavored liquid.
Never has a single line more deftly skewered the world of the coffee and tea-swilling masses.
Keiko does occasionally deign to drink tea when she meets up with a circle of “normal” women coordinated through a friend from school, Miho. She does this not so much because she enjoys it but because they’re a precious resource for her to study the mores of her peers outside the world of the convenience store, from what handbags they carry to the way they coo at a baby or eat their cookies by breaking them into tiny pieces with their perfectly manicured fingers. She clearly sees how they, as well as her colleagues, “infect” each other with their behavior, mimicking clothes and patterns of speech.
Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think.
Despite Keiko’s temperance, I pressed on with the conceit of Book & Bottle and resolved to meet the challenge of choosing something to pair with the book that was easily bought at a convenience store, while also honoring Keiko’s emotionless, non-indulgent relationship with food and drink. Unfortunately, the closest convenience store to my apartment, on a gentrified drag of San Francisco, is not a normal American convenience store. In place of hot dogs and Coors, it stocks Amy’s vegetarian frozen entrees and tallboys of craft-brewed, local IPAs sold at a hefty premium to Safeway. A specialist sake store across the street didn’t seem right either. Instead I headed to the busy Nijiya Market in Japantown, which, according to the ten-cent plastic bag I bought when I checked out, is a chain of Japanese markets in California, Honolulu and Hartsdale, NY.
Standing in front of a boggling array of what I incorrectly assumed was all sake, a young man appeared and pointed at a can called Chu-Hi, telling his friends this with the closest you can get to Strong Zero here in America. I asked him what Strong Zero was, and he explained it’s a Japanese diet soda that’s about 9% alcohol. The $2.99 can in front of me said 6% ABV, just below an image of a grapefruit sliced open and sitting on top of a blue block of ice. Bingo. I had found what I assumed was the Smirnoff Ice of Japan. The Internet later informed me Chu-Hi is fruit soda mixed with shōchū, a Japanese distilled liquor. Developed in eastern Tokyo in the 1940s, Chu-Hi pre-dates Smirnoff Ice by about fifty years.
Strictly speaking I was going off-piste from the “bottle” concept of Book & Bottle, but I liked the affinity my can of Chu-Hi had with the dented canned drinks Keiko buys to take home. Hers come in flavors like lemonade and a tantalizing-sounding chocolate melon, but she’s buying them because they’re damaged goods that can’t otherwise be sold in the convenience store. Keiko describes her motives as utilitarian, and yet I can’t help sentimentally attributing the behavior at least in part to some subconscious empathy for herself.
My assertion of Keiko’s essential punkiness rests on how utterly radical it is of her to be happy with what is generally considered a dead-end job, without a partner or children of her own, which she translates into flatly delivered, direct insights, like:
When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.
The tension in the story arrives when Keiko bows, sort of, to the pressure from her friends and family to lead a more normal life—husband, kids, a real job. Realizing a lowlife former convenience store colleague, Shiraha, suffers many of the same problems of failing to meet expectations that she does, she opportunistically hatches a scheme where he will move in with her—he’s been kicked out of his apartment—so that they can both appear to have found a partner and be settling down.
The book stays firmly rooted in reality, but the recurring language of “eliminating foreign objects,” especially as the plot takes this extreme turn, is reminiscent of the surreal dystopia of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2015 film, The Lobster, in which single people are given forty-five days to find a partner or be turned into an animal of their choice. Fittingly, Keiko thinks of her new arrangement as adopting a pet; Shiraha is nothing more to her than an animal she has to feed. And yet everyone around them is delighted.
On the first night that Shiraha moves in, Keiko calls her sister on a whim, as an experiment, to tell her the news. She starts by asking about her nephew, who her sister reports is fast asleep, before delivering yet another of her deadpan, inadvertent reflections on what society recognizes as success:
My sister’s life was progressing. At any rate, a living being that hadn’t existed before was now there with her.
Her sister is over the moon at Keiko’s news of a man in the house.
She was getting carried away with making up a story for herself. She might just as well have been saying I was “cured.”
Without wanting to give away too much more of Convenience Store Woman, there’s a period where Keiko loses her profession, and the plot has a brief, eerie overlap with Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation as Keiko takes to mostly full-time sleeping. We never get to see the moment when Keiko zips up her uniform and reclaims her rightful mantle of Convenience Store Worker—a wrong I’m hoping will be righted in a full superhero-suiting-up montage if the book is ever adapted to film—but the book still ends with a scene that suggests rebirth. Alone, Keiko sees herself reflected in the window of the convenience store, reminding her of the hospital where she first saw her newborn nephew. She hears the clerk behind the glass call out the familiar refrain:
Welcome, please come in! My best advice is to heed the invitation. Grab yourself a Chu-Hi—Fresca with vodka would make a convincing facsimile if there’s no Japanese market near you—then head back outside. Cherry blossom season is here. Sit under a tree, crack open your drink and lay into the book. But beware: both have sly charms that will leave you wasted before you know what hit you.
*Convenience Store Woman is translated from Japanese to English by Ginny Tapley Takemori