The Pequod Review:
Convenience Store Woman is an odd and insular little novel about a Tokyo woman (Keiko) who has spent her entire career (eighteen years) as a Smile Mart sales clerk. Not much happens in the book and many of the characters are automatons, but Sakaya Murata captures the essential features of modern retail environments quite well:
A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beep of the bar code scanner , the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. IT all blends into the convenience store sounds that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums.
I hear the faint rattle of a new plastic bottle rolling into place as a customer takes one out of the refrigerator, and look up instantly. A cold drink is often the last item customers take before coming to the checkout till, and my body responds automatically to the sound. I see a woman holding a bottle of mineral water while perusing the desserts and look back down.
As I arrange the display of newly delivered rice balls, my body picks up information from the multitude of sounds around the store. At this time of day, rice balls, sandwiches, and salads are what sell best. Another part-timer, Sugawara, is over at the other side of the store checking off items with a handheld scanner. I continue laying out the pristine, machine-made food neatly on the shelves of the cold display: in the middle I place two rows of the new flavor, spicy cod roe with cream cheese, alongside two rows of the store’s best-selling flavor, tuna mayonnaise, and then I line the less popular dry bonito shavings in soy sauce flavor next to those. Speed is of the essence, and I barely use my head as the rules ingrained in me issue instructions directly to my body.
A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated. The threatening atmosphere that had briefly permeated the store was swept away, and the customers again concentrated on buying their coffee and pastries as if nothing happened.
Eighteen years in such an environment is tough for Keiko (to say the least) but she manages to find meaning and purpose anyway.