Convenience Store Woman

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I listen to the "Reason Roundtable" podcast every week, which includes, at the end, their recommendations for things (movies, books, music) listeners might enjoy. I've (frankly) had bad luck with Katherine Mangu-Ward's recommendations; I just don't share her science fiction tastes, probably because I'm an old stodgy man, she's a young with-it woman. But she recommended this book a few months back, I finally checked it out from the Portsmouth Public Library, and (yay!) finally, a win for Katherine. I liked it a lot.

Plus which, it's multicultural! Set in modern-day Japan, originally in Japanese. It's also very short. (But it counts as an actual book read! It counts!)

It is the story of Keiko Furukura. It's clear that she's on the spectrum, as they say. She's always been an oddball, observing society, family, co-workers, and acquaintances as an extraterrestrial might, always looking at how others behave, consciously aping their speech patterns and mannerisms. That's how she's managed to fit in, as best she can.

And she's really found a relatively comfortable niche, clerking at a (see the title) convenience store in a Tokyo suburb. She's been there for eighteen years in the same part-time job. She's seen managers and co-workers come and go. She gets by with her meager salary and eating unsellable food items. (And some sound pretty tasty. Spicy cod roe noodles? Hm.) We learn that her family is concerned by, but resigned to, her eccentricity. It helps that she's totally impossible to insult. Even the most offensive things people say to her—she simply observes them, never taking anything personally.

And things might have gone on longer, were it not for Shiraha, a new employee who's a different kind of oddball: even more alienated from society, leeching off family, and someone who's not at all interested in doing his job well. Keiko (again, ET-like) is fascinated by this new behavior, and their relationship evolves into… well, it's weird to us outside observers, but it makes perfect sense to them. I found myself cheering for her, hoping she could overcome this disruption in her life.

I found it useful to imagine the characters here speaking loudly and stiffly to each other, kind of like those poorly-dubbed Japanese monster movies from my youth.