If You Anchor Yourself in the Idea
by Jon Doyle
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman Granta, 176pp, ISBN 9781846276835, £12.99
In his 2009 book, Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher points to Franz Kafka as the most illuminating writer on the neoliberal style. The Trial, he argues, is the perfect representation of post-Fordian bureaucracy, where Josef K's quest to reach ultimate authority and solve the mystery of his arrest is an endless endeavour of delays and postponements. ‘The big Other,’ Fisher writes, meaning the authority figure with the answers K craves, ‘cannot be encountered in itself: there are only officials [. . .] engaged in acts of interpretation about what the big Other's intentions. And these acts of interpretation, these deferrals of responsibility, are all that the big Other is.’
Anyone who has tried to navigate the infinite maze of corporate helplines will recognise the centreless conspiracy of bureaucracy, though late capitalist society simulates the phenomenon in other, less direct ways. Take for example the age-old obsession of writers and navel-gazers alike – the discovery of one’s true Self. The answer, we’re led to believe by contemporary entertainment and advertisements, lies within the bettering of one’s social position, as though the amount of things experienced and possessed is directly proportional to the ability to see into your own soul. Attempts at earning these things only push the goal further back, damned as we are to K’s fate of perpetual searching, though the solution appears to hover never more than an arm’s length away. We see the happiness of those people on TV. The self-assurance, the straight white teeth. We assume to achieve what they have is to become them, those brilliant simulacra of people, sandblasted into poise and grace by the great cleansing beam of personal success. We are not worthy, we are sure, because that level of attainment is always two steps ahead of us. But what if we do not have to be us? What if we do not have to be ourselves?
The Made-Up Self
The debut novel by Joseph Scapellato, The Made-Up Man is part paranoid mystery, part absurd comedy, a Czech-based film noir of which Kafka himself would be proud. Having screwed up in archaeology school and ruined his relationship with his would-be fiancé, protagonist Stanley accepts a seemingly simple offer from his uncle Lech – travel to Prague and apartment-sit for three days. Only Lech is an artist and potential lunatic, the performance pieces of his collective ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright dangerous, infiltrating the lives of his family and friends in the name of artistic expression.
Stanley is well aware, therefore, that the apartment-sitting is merely a pretext, a way to get a principle subject to the stage before the performance can begin. His father tells him not to go, his brother the opposite, though his mind is made up when he discovers his not-fiancé T is also traveling to Prague as part of her acting work. He can ignore his uncle’s games and provocations, Stanley decides, insulate himself through passivity and self-imposed ignorance. He can make the trip nothing more than a paid excursion to the Czech Republic to win back T. And, most importantly, he can become the type of man who travels across the world to reclaim his lover.
Of course, the idea is a fantasy. His uncle is far too committed and inventive to allow his subjects easy freedom, and inaction becomes a form of action as Stanley’s disengagement only furthers the performance. People turn up at the apartment uninvited, made-up in both a figurative and literal sense – faces caked in concealer and lipstick, pretending to be versions of Stanley’s relatives. Whenever he leaves the apartment, Stanley finds his belongings tampered with, his laptop’s background image changed to photos of him taken in secret that day. Chalk outlines appear on the walls and floors, shapes ‘as seen in old detective films,’ and it becomes increasingly unclear as to whether Stanley’s role in the game is victim or perpetrator, detective or client. Not only does the trip fail to instigate his white knight image of Ideal Stanley, it serves to fracture his idea of self into increasingly smaller shards.
As things escalate, the confusion about his own role soon extends to the role of those around him. Artists hammer on the apartment door, appear in the street, their performance growing increasingly personal as they mimic stories and anecdotes from Stanley’s past that only his closest relatives could know. As with Kafka’s K before him, paranoia arrives with justifiable certainty. His family and friends are in on the act, they must be. Not only does he fail to find himself in Prague, Stanley also loses trust in his understanding of others, no longer sure of his ability to read faces, to understand and empathise. By trying to be someone else, he finds he can no longer trust himself.
The development reveals the true self-deception of Stanley’s plan. The biggest fantasy was not that he could neuter his uncle’s influence, but rather that he could become an idealised version of himself in doing so. ‘If you anchor yourself in the idea,’ Stanley’s Aunt Abbey tells him on one occasion, foreshadowing the events to come, ‘you anchor yourself in wanting […] Once you’re there, if you’re not careful, the wanting will replace everything. You’ll start to want to believe that the idea can replace you—that it can complete you.’
His aunt was speaking of the discrepancy between her desire to make art and longing to be an artist, though, mapped onto Stanley’s life, the sentiment explains everything. His interest in archaeology is not some deep-held fascination with ancient cultures but rather an infatuation with being the sort of person who occupies such circles. Which is to say, Stanley doesn’t dream of being an archaeologist, he dreams of being the new, confident version of Stanley capable of being an archaeologist. Archaeologist Stanley can replace him, he seems to think. Archaeologist Stanley can complete him.
Only it can’t, and doesn’t, and the whole thing blows up in his face. Likewise, the relationship Stanley shares with his girlfriend is another fantasy-based endeavour. T is friendly and kind and beautiful, the sort of person who gets mistaken for a celebrity, any celebrity, when riding public transport. In contrast to Stanley, she’s spontaneous and full of life, though still makes it known that she wants to settle down and marry him. Stanley holds different views on marriage, and tells her so, though also shares his intention to become a person who does agree with it. ‘i’m working on becoming a different person,’ he says. ‘How else do you do that but by taking yourself into taking uncomfortable actions, by being talked into uncomfortable actions?’
Again, Stanley is not enamoured with the reality of the situation, but rather that idea of the person he could become within it (no matter how fictional, how unlike him, that person might be). Unsurprisingly, T is confused by the position. ‘I don’t want you to be a different person,’ she says, though what other people want isn’t necessarily near the top of Stanley’s concerns. He buys a ring and pushes forward, stumbling after yet another imaginary version of himself to which he can never quite catch up.
The Convenient Other
The protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, Keiko, stands in complete contrast to Stanley. Murata’s tenth work but the first to be released in English (thanks to the translation of Ginny Tapley Takemori), the novel finds its narrator working happily in a local supermarket. With no ideas of promotion or social mobility, Keiko is consumed not by the weight of becoming who she wants to be, but rather that of maintaining who she already is. Keiko is Stanley inverted. She herself is entirely satisfied with her life but her family and friends wish she would push outside of her comfort zone and aim to become something better. Something more normal.
For Keiko is the only shop worker to have been in the job for any length of time, her colleagues a revolving cast of students and housewives and job hoppers that treat the position with a socially-acceptable level of disdain. Convenience store work is a rung on a ladder, and a lower rung at that – those occupying it either ascending rapidly or else having fallen so far as to be glad of the temporary footing. No-one stays on the bottom rungs of a ladder, goes the undisputed logic, and those that choose to must be peculiar. Keiko must therefore be unfit or impaired, no matter how good she is at the role, no matter the satisfaction she draws from it.
Worse, in the eyes of others, Keiko’s social and romantic life is no more ambitious or eventful. She has never been in a relationship and never had sex, facts seen by others as colossal red flags signalling something or other about a woman in her late thirties. The friendships she does maintain are performed, quite literally, with Keiko taking cues from others on how to react in any given circumstance. And, when they ask her about love and life, Keiko employs vagueness, a trick her self-conscious sister taught her at a young age. She claims a chronic medical condition, a limiting factor on her possibilities, and speaks around its details. Her friends assume darkness, depression, an all-encompassing loneliness, and Keiko is baffled. ‘And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t,’ she thinks to herself. ‘I had the feeling I was being told they wanted to settle the matter this way because that was the easiest option for them [...] What a pain I thought, wondering why everyone felt such a need for reassurance.’
Only the pressure for reassurance grows and grows. Her friends and their partners instruct her on ways to improve herself, her mother and sister wish that she be ‘cured’. ‘You mean I shouldn’t be living the way I am now?’ Keiko wonders. ‘Why do you say that?’ Drawing on the manicured perfection of her supermarket milieu, she comes to view society as a ‘forcibly normalized environment,’ a place that expurgates anomalies to maintain its equilibrium. Her decision to try to change is based not on a desire to become herself (she already is) but rather a tactic of self-preservation, believing her ‘self’ unviable in contemporary society.
She meets Shiraha, a man at odds with the world and his position in it, when he takes a job at the store purely to look for a suitable wife. Shiraha is mean and openly misogynistic, but his ideas resonate with Keiko. ‘That’s why contemporary society is dysfunctional,’ he says, bemoaning not only his lonely existence but the way he is treated because of it. ‘They might mumble nice things about diversity of lifestyles or whatnot, but in the end nothing has changed since prehistoric times.’ Shiraha comes up with a plan – he will move in with Keiko, and though their relationship will be no closer than two strangers, the arrangement will circumvent the wrath of society. They will perform a relationship through a vague statement of facts. ‘There’s a man in my home now,’ Keiko tells her sister over the phone, causing much excitement on the other end of the line. ‘She was getting carried away with making up a story for herself. She might as well have been saying I was ‘cured’.’
At the finale of Scapellato’s work, Stanley comes to understand that the whole performance was conducted for his benefit, a joint effort between his uncle and aunt triggered by worries held by his mother and brother and T. ‘You do not instruct the community [. . .] by instructing the community,’ Lech says, explaining his reasoning. ‘You instruct the community by instructing the individual. And you must use the community, all of the community, to instruct the individual.’ Whether the project maintains a benevolent aim or becomes transmogrified by Lech’s artistic visions is unclear, but it does trigger something of an epiphany. Every person in Stanley’s life has an idea of who he is, and he himself has several ideas of who he wants to be, and none are exactly true. The closing pages find him in a state of indecision, a cease-fire of interpretation and action – he knows his next action will dictate his new identity, and feels in no way equipped to make the choice.
Murata’s Keiko is also instructed by the community, and reaches an epiphany of her own. Only, her revelation does not concern the illusory nature of her identity, but rather its actuality. Shiraha’s insistence that dysfunctional life is only possible when cloaked by a mirage of normalcy is punctured, her worries transcended by a return to her true beliefs. Keiko is a convenience store worker, a single woman, and the prospect of moving away from these facts only reinforces their truth. Better then to be true to oneself and shoulder the outside consequences, to disengage from the values of capitalist society no matter what others might think.
Joseph Scapellato presents the dangers of self-deception in the search for one’s identity, Sayaka Murata the trap of trying to deceive others. Keiko must chase away the lure of fictions to preserve her stable self, her inaction in the face of neoliberal expectation representing a kind of radical action. On the other hand, Stanley chases fictional versions of himself from dig sites to Prague like a lepidopterist with a net. Just as the quest for resolution Kafka presented in The Trial only multiplies the confusion, such an active strategy for self-discovery proves counter-productive. The more Stanley runs in any one direction, the further from an answer he gets, his identity like a rainbow on the horizon, a mirage in the desert. As Fisher described of K’s ordeal the search for the centre deputises for the centre itself, and by refusing to stop and look within himself, Stanley risks hollowing out his authentic self – True Stanley nothing more than Searching Stanley, a Stanley Who Could Never Be True.