Today’s Best Book in the World!

In his book Craft in the Real World, writing teacher Matthew Salesses talks about the ways that traditional writing workshops can be places of hostility, even when (almost always) unintentional. The pitfalls come when some kinds of stories and narrative structures and characters seem so taken for granted that stories of other cultures or structures are deemed to be incorrect or out of bounds. There’s no “conflict,” no “arc of change,” and so therefore the story is faulty. Some stories are within the community’s unspoken expectations, and those that aren’t will be met with resistance.

The first writer I read that truly challenged those expectations was Kenzaburo Oe, the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1994, who once said that his work was about “the dignity of human beings.” Oe’s stories don’t move us along as much as they ask us to sit, quietly, with the facts of a person and her or his circumstances. There is a story, a sequence, but it’s in the background, a simple chronological organization of a series of states of mind. When I teach fiction writing, I say that the basic logic of fiction is that there’s a pre-BOOM, a BOOM, and a post-BOOM; that is, that there’s one or more disruptive events that change the angle of the story. And Oe’s work helps me to see how cultural that expectation is, and how Western of me that I’d never imagined stories created otherwise.

My own work has some of that non-BOOM character, though, based on the fact that I was trained as an ethnographer rather than a fiction writer. I’ve always felt at home watching people in the everyday, trying to understand the unspoken cultural guidelines that shape the visible behaviors. And because of that, I’ve been told occasionally that it’s problematic that my stories don’t hit their point of conflict early enough. In response to reading the first page of one of my stories, one reader said, “So does anything happen to your boy Tim? If so, start there.” That expectation that we’re tossed immediately into tumult is a particularly cultural belief, and could be otherwise. But different stories rely on different readers, who are willing to sit and watch.

The most recent, wonderful example of a BOOM-less book I’ve read is Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata. Originally published in 2016, the book sold a million and a half copies in Japan, likely substantially less in its 2018 English translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The story is told through the person of Keiko, a woman in her mid-30s who has found a seemingly destined life through her work in a convenience store (“Smile Mart”). Others around her, her family most centrally, can’t quite understand why she hasn’t fulfilled one of the two culturally acceptable roles of womanhood—wife/mother or career woman. They acknowledge that she’s stable and capable, but not in a way that they deem “successful.” They’ve always tried to repair what they see as her faults.

The success of the book is in its deep ethnography. For readers willing to sit, we’re shown the inner workings of a mind untroubled by being “other.” Keiko has never been able to read the emotions of others, but she’s learned to mimic their expressions well enough to be adjacent to people, even as she’s never fully one of them. She’s learned to read the labels on others’ clothing so that she knows the “right brands” to buy, so that people will see her as acceptable. She’s learned what can and cannot be said—mostly the things that cannot, as when examining her sister’s baby: “Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others, but so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called a baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.”

At eighteen years in the Smile Mart, she’s outlasted eight managers, every coworker, every individual product that’s ever been sold. In one of the most brilliant passages of the book, she talks about the underlying change that feels to casual observers like stability:

As she fished out her purse to pay, she again muttered, “This place really doesn’t ever change, does it?”

Actually, someone was eliminated from here today, I thought. But I merely told her “thank you” and started scanning her purchases.

Her figure overlapped with that of the old lady who had been the very first customer when the store opened eighteen years ago. She too had come daily, walking with a stick, until one day I realized she wasn’t coming anymore. Maybe her health had deteriorated, or maybe she’d moved. We had no way of knowing.

But here I was repeating the same scene of that first day. Since then we had greeted the same morning 6,607 times.

I gently placed the eggs in a plastic bag. The same eggs sold yesterday, only different. The customer put the same chopsticks into the same plastic bag as yesterday, took the same change, and gave the same morning smile.

There is a BOOM in the book, sort of, coming late, but its narrative function is to convince Keiko that she’s been on the right path all along, and wants nothing more than to sustain it. The work of the reader is not to be swept along in the flow of events—it’s to sit quietly with Keiko and experience those events with her and through her.

Western reviewers of the book often turned to a handful of terms to describe the book, or to describe Keiko. Words like “oddball,” “strange,” “weird,” “eccentric,” “quirky.” And that’s an example of the problem that Salesses tries to show us in his book. Even the most positive reviews of the book often described it in words that showed us that it was exotic, that it was outside the norms of the canon. If we came to literature knowing that there are a body of people who are asexual, then Keiko’s revulsion at sexuality wouldn’t be quirky, it’d just be who she is. If we came to literature expecting occasionally to read about people who are neurodivergent, then Keiko’s regular confusion at the norms of the world wouldn’t be oddball, it’d just be the story of someone navigating a culture. Praising a book for its “nutty deadpan prose and even more nuttily likable narrator” means that we’re treating it like a pet, a TikTok-able novelty, rather than a meaningful contribution to literature

Convenience Store Woman is one of the very best things I’ve read in ages, exactly because it makes a way of living and thinking so completely visible.

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