Work-Life: A review of The Remains of the Day and Convenience Store Woman

As it happens, unintentionally, I’ve just finished reading two novels in which the main protagonists are wholly, unequivocally, dedicated to their work-- however, while one has willfully dedicated his entire life to his duties and to propriety, that he has perhaps lost something along the way, though he will never speak of it — the other is content in being devoured by their job (or perhaps even becoming their job), that it’s no longer work, but oxygen.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s been a while since a book has made me cry openly. Perfect, hilarious, and quietly devastating all at once. It consumes you, this story about an English butler in post-war England who is the quintessential example of all servants proper, dutiful, and dignified. During a road trip to the countryside, he reminisces about his decades of service as butler to a "great gentleman", who is now of ill repute in society after the Second World War. The objective of this rare vacation is for him to hopefully re-recruit a former housekeeper back in Darlington Hall. Because they’re so short-staffed as it is, you see.

Ishiguro’s voice for the butler Stevens is flawless, as if I could distinctly hear his internal monologue, and this is so important as most of the nuance — and drama — plays in his own head. There are so many things said, yet unsaid, all for the sake of British decorum. Stevens is so emotionally restrained that you, as a reader, is the one gripped with feeling. You might find this frustrating, but in Ishiguro’s excellent writing, it comes out as comedic, sad, and wistful.

If you ask me how I would succinctly describe The Remains of the Day, I wouldn't know how to articulate a response except to say "it's very British". You might not know what the hell that means, and to that I offer this excerpt:

"What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”

The Remains of the Day is about hindsight. It makes one think about how we remember our past, and wonder how capable are we to grow in ever changing times.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

(interesting note: in Japanese, the title reads more literally "Convenience Store Human". Quite the difference!)

This one is a quick and light read (I finished it in a couple of hours), with unpretentious prose. If The Remains of the Day is very "British", then Convenience Store Woman is very "Japanese", precisely because of the social and economic importance and meaning of the convenience store in Japan. Whereas here in the Philippines and elsewhere convenience stores exist for a quick unhealthy snack, in Japan they are seen as very common sites of accessibility, reliability, and civility. It’s in this uniquely Japanese space that Murata’s protagonist finds affirmation of her existence.

Keiko Furukura, is wholly indifferent to social norms, but recognizing the need for social survival, she mimics the social behavior of people in her immediate vicinity. Unmarried and living by herself, she is perfectly content to forever be an employee at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. In fact, she’s more than content — the convenience store is Life. But when coworkers start pestering her about her love life and future prospects, Furukura resignedly decides to do something about it, but only to make them stop asking, in another attempt at mimicry.

This is an amusing novel. It’s so low-key and slice-of-life, with an undercurrent of something not ugly, not necessarily sinister, but just weird. It’s like reading the perspective of an extraterrestrial being. Women of a certain age who are living in Asia would definitely relate to being annoyed with social expectations required of being an "adult woman".

It should make readers uncomfortable, but Furukura’s matter-of-fact (and sociopathic) thoughts just made me laugh. I found it relaxing to read about Furukura obsessively dedicating her life to every little, menial thing about the convenience store, from the way the products should be carefully displayed to how customers should be greeted. It’s "mindless" work, but it’s soothing. Maybe Furukura is onto something.

An excerpt from the first paragraph:

"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 beeps of the barcode 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 sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums."

You can email the author at surrealistsushi@gmail.com or follow her on twitter (surrealistsushi).

Surrealist Sushi has an MA in International Studies and a BA in Art, with interests in pop culture, history, and film.

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