That people are weird, and the ‘normal’ ones weirdest of all, is obvious to Keiko Furukura, as it has been to fictional antiheroes from Holden Caulfield to Donnie Darko. Yet unlike those archetypes of adolescent male angst, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut is a thirty-six-year-old woman ensconced in a dead-end job, living alone in the Tokyo suburbs without prospect of promotion or romantic fulfilment. The twist to a story that we are conditioned to expect will be tragic – a single woman in her mid-thirties is liable to be treated as an object of pity – is that Keiko is happy, or at least as close to conventional happiness as is possible for someone whose inability to empathise leads her to say of her friends’ children (and here I sympathise) that ‘they were all just an animal called a baby and looked much the same’.
Keiko finds meaning instead in the rhythms of the convenience store in which she works and a sense of belonging in its fixed corporate hierarchies. And so neat asides on the integrity of selfhood and classical models of society are slipped into the story of her failure to ‘fit in’ despite halfhearted attempts to secure a life partner and amusingly blank anthropological observations (‘I find the shape of people’s eyes particularly interesting when they’re being condescending’). But the novel is most satisfying as a satire on the genre of ‘chick lit’ – young woman in a big city endures professional and romantic mishaps yet ultimately, with the help of a screwball best friend, secures the man who makes her life worth living – and the misogynistic societal norms that it reinforces.
For all its charm, it remains faintly depressing that this critique of the path marked out for citizens of capitalist societies should be mediated through a character whose inability to relate to others would ordinarily be diagnosed as a developmental disorder. Because ‘normal’ people often think that the prevailing obsession with career, mortgage, marriage and childbirth is weird, too.
From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia