23 September, 2020 • • 44.6FictionLiteratureVoice

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The Quest to Conform

Becky Clark

“Irasshaimasé!” [Welcome to the store!]. This cheery greeting rings in readers’ ears throughout Sayaka Murata’s bestselling novel Convenience Store Woman. The book follows a 36-year old unmarried Japanese woman who has spent half of her life working part-time in the same Smile Mart. Everyone around Keiko presumes there must be something wrong with her: she rarely initiates conversations other than for a functional purpose, is excessively dedicated to her low-paid dead-end job, and has seemingly no interest in dating or sex. Yet Keiko is perfectly satisfied living as a cog in the convenience store machine—the only thing which gives her life meaning.

Across the Pacific, Pulitzer nominee The Topeka School is set in the American Midwest in the late 1990s and follows the coming-of-age of Adam Gordon, a pretentious teen desperately trying to bridge the gap between his passion for poetry and ‘real’ manhood. The novel flits across time periods and between Adam’s perspective and that of his psychologist parents Jonathan and Jane, interwoven with a tragic tale of an outcast who struggles with social interaction. It is the third novel in a trilogy by Ben Lerner, offering a pre-history to his other two works. Nevertheless, it can be read as a stand-alone book which explores the significance of speech in a US context through debate, poetry, rap battles, therapy, and a lot of male posturing.

These two novels initially appear very disparate, set in divergent contexts with differing plot lines. Even the writing styles deviate wildly: Convenience Store Woman is deadpan and blunt, whilst The Topeka School is littered with self-indulgent prose (its author, Lerner, is a highly acclaimed poet). Yet both read as in-depth character studies, exploring individuals’ attempts (or lack of) to conform to societal expectations.

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The Topeka School opens with an unsettling passage in which Adam creeps into his girlfriend’s house at night, before slowly coming to the realisation that he is in fact in the wrong house, one with an identical layout to the rest of the residences which surround the lake. This eerie uniformity sets the scene for a teenage trope which pervades the novel, that of an insecure adolescent anxious to assimilate. There is relentless tension throughout the novel as Adam grapples with reconciling his liberal upbringing by two New York psychologists (who work at a liberal enclave known as ‘The Foundation’) with his need to pass as a ‘true’ man living in the red state of Kansas. He manages to successfully fit into the cool crowd by downplaying his debating skills, using his sharp tongue for rap battles (which “transmuted his prowess as a public speaker and aspiring poet into something cool”), and bulking out at the gym.

Each chapter is preceded by a brief third-person passage following Darren Eberheart, a loner and high-school drop-out who hangs out at the military surplus store. Whereas Adam can exploit his oratory skills to move between social circles, Darren displays a “deep incomprehension of the language game in which he was attempting to feign fluency”, which ultimately culminates in a flash of violence. Darren’s character is woefully underexplored in The Topeka School; I felt that his snippets merely served to ground the novel in time (Darren’s passages are nearly always chronological, unlike the rest of the book) and provide the semblance of a story arc. Yet Lerner insists in an interview for Powells that Darren’s peripheral placement in the book is purposeful, “both because he doesn’t really have a voice in any of those communities, but also because… I’m both trying to write from his perspective and structurally acknowledge the limits of my ability to access it.” Whether an unfortunate oversight or literary device, this nevertheless feels like somewhat of a cop out. It is all too convenient that, years later, Darren dons a red MAGA cap at a protest led by the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church. In condensing Trumpism into a community for social pariahs, this scene appears reductionist and reinforces stereotypes which liberal-leaning readers (who, I strongly suspect, constitute the vast majority) already hold.

Convenience Store Woman provides the missing first-person narrative of an individual who struggles to use their voice to integrate into society. Like Darren, Keiko is an outcast who finds acting ‘normal’ a struggle. To fit in, Keiko mimics the speech patterns of her co-workers, stating matter-of-factly that “my speech is especially infected by everyone around me and is currently a mix of that of Mrs. Izumi and Suguwara”. When an old acquaintance remarks that Keiko seems different, her inner voice quips that this is hardly surprising since “I absorb the world around me, and that’s changing all the time”. In this way, Keiko’s intonation, mannerisms, and dress sense constantly evolve to reflect whoever the current store employees happen to be. This ostensibly unusual behaviour provides insight into the harsh reality of life for many neurodivergent individuals, who must learn to constantly act the role of an ‘ordinary person’ to be accepted by society, thus struggling to retain a sense of self (Keiko later asks herself, “who was it that my friends were speaking to?”). This so-called ‘social masking’ is particularly common among autistic women, resulting in systematic under-diagnosis along gender lines (it is estimated that women on the autism spectrum are more likely to ‘mask’ than men on the autism spectrum).

It is never explicitly stated whether Keiko is on the autism spectrum or Darren has an intellectual disability, although this has been subject to much speculation. To me, these silences guard against pigeon-holing and place a spotlight on the hostile way in which society treats atypicality rather than on a particular diagnosis; in one of the most poignant lines of the novel, Keiko realises that her own sister is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.” In this context, it makes complete sense that Keiko enjoys working at the convenience store so much. Each morning, the store workers rehearse six set phrases to parrot back to customers, which Keiko has mastered down to the exact tone of voice. Pretending to be ‘ordinary’ is exhausting, while the mask of the convenience store fits; as Naoise Dolan notes in her powerful review for The Guardian, “if one play-acts everywhere, it’s freeing to have a script”.

For neurotypical individuals, mirroring the speech patterns and actions of others is largely instinctive, so much so that they typically fail to recognise that they are doing it. Lerner takes up this theme of repetition as well, focusing on how behaviours are echoed over time. The Gordon family are all battling to break these cycles: Jonathan struggles with fidelity, Adam with toxic masculinity (“boys will be boys”), and Jane with her fraught relationship with her own father. Psychoanalytic therapy often revolves around identifying such patterns, which serves as the first step towards breaking them. This healing process is embodied in an endearing motif whereby Jane recites the absurdist poem ‘The Purple Cow’ and Adam purposefully misquotes it in the call-and-response, constituting “their ritual refusal of repetition across the generations”.

In the same Powells interview, Lerner remarks that:

… so much of this book is a genealogy of the voice that’s writing it, and Adam is really concerned with who goes into his voice. It’s not something that you control. People speak through you—fathers, grandfathers, media, mothers, friends, whatever. The way language circulates through Adam is part of what he’s trying to figure out. Adolescence isn’t just about coming into a body; it’s also about coming into a voice.

In a moment of panic, Adam realises the extent to which the speech of others (be it his debating coach or the rapper Tupac) have fed into his own, asking himself: “How do you rid yourself of a voice, keep it from becoming part of yours?”. This phenomenon is not always threatening, however. In one of the few lighter moments of the book, we catch a glimpse of a voice in formation when Adam’s ravenous daughter sassily declares, “Don’t even think about how hungry I am right now”; this failed attempt at using the phrase “Don’t even think about [X]” brings attention to her efforts in mimicking her father’s language. The idea of one’s voice as a complex amalgamation is further reflected in the book’s narration style, when Jane’s first-person testimony is abruptly revealed to be mediated through Adam (“I bet you won’t put this in your novel”), thereby shattering the fourth wall.

Lerner is fascinated by the instability of speech. The reader is first introduced to this with a description of Jonathan’s dissertation on ‘speech shadowing’, where participants are asked to repeat speech immediately after hearing it. Jonathan discovers that when speeding up the recording, many participants inadvertently end up talking drivel. This deterioration into glossolalia occurs again when Jonathan is on an acid trip, when his wife Jane is recounting her past trauma, and when his son Adam is dealing with a break-up. Yet the most compelling scenes are not those in which articulacy is impossible, but those in which it is simply not enough. Fast forward to Adam as the father of two daughters, confronting a fellow dad in the playground whose son refuses to budge from the top of the slide. When his attempts at delicate persuasion fail, he resorts to brute force and whacks the other dad’s phone from his hands. The reader must ask of Adam, as he does of his younger self: “how many of his small gestures and postures in the present were embodied echoes of the past, repetitions just below the threshold of his consciousness?”.

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The voice of the critic permeates both novels, challenging the standard path carved out for people to follow. “I wanted to illustrate how odd the people who believe they are ordinary or normal are,” says Murata in an interview for the New York Times. The endless book reviews describing Keiko as an “oddball” thus seem to profoundly miss the point of the novel; the normative baggage associated with such a term (which implies that it is bad or wrong to differ from social norms) is precisely what is in dispute. Building on this, Steve Silberman writes in NeuroTribes that“by autistic standards, the ‘normal’ brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine.” Keiko seems to share this view. She is a scrupulous worker, taking careful note of the weather forecast and the construction of new builds in the area to inform the store manager which items will sell best in the coming days and weeks. When she lets slip to her co-workers that a man is living at her apartment, she is shocked by their unrestrained curiosity: “As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen”.

Social commentary is scattered throughout The Topeka School, though with a different target in mind. While Murata takes aim at the overwhelming pressure to be ‘normal’ in all facets of life, Lerner hones in on a crisis of white masculinity in modern-day America. As a young boy, Adam is terrified by a nightmarish vision of evil men hidden behind the walls; as a teenager, he has developed into a serial mansplainer who is constantly evaluating his actions against macho standards (“Was it more, or less, emasculating to have a famous mom?”). His mother Jane must regularly deal with “the Men”, anonymous callers who deliver a litany of abuse in response to her feminist fame. Her coping strategy—to pretend she cannot hear them and ask them to speak up, until they grow too embarrassed and hang up—rings true for female readers used to deploying such de-escalation techniques. Jonathan’s speciality is in therapy for so-called “lost boys” (of which Darren is counted among them), white youths prone to rage and violence who seem destined to join the ranks of “the Men”.

These micro-instantiations of toxic masculine culture also play out on the wider political stage. This insight is best captured by Klaus, a Holocaust survivor who acts as Jonathan’s mentor at the Foundation, when he remarks of men in America that they’re “boys, perpetual boys, Peter Pans, man-children, since America is adolescence without end”. This phrase, “America is adolescence without end”, becomes a refrain throughout the novel, where “America” is represented by the archetypal angry white male. To me, Lerner’s analysis is most perceptive when taken to refer to the prevalence of petty tribalism and misogynistic attitudes within US politics (at one point, the reader is unexpectedly met with a quotation from President Trump: “I helped create her, Ivanka, my daughter, Ivanka, she’s six feet tall, she’s got the best body”). This dim assessment of the state of the nation reappears in the recent award-winning documentary ‘Boys State’, which follows thousands of immature teenage American boys who spend a week together running for mock office.

It appears that the author had a goal beyond this in mind, however. In an interview for Hazlitt, Lerner contends that Klaus himself represents “a kind of ongoing historical trauma, which is about the regression to fascist unreason in these moments of a certain kind of identity vacuum”—a regression which he evidently believes to be happening under the Trump administration. This analogy between individual and national repetitions of past trauma holds a great deal of promise, but as it stands, the idea is poorly executed (for instance, what “historical trauma” is being referred to?). Unpicking the roots of fragile masculinity in contemporary America is an ambitious task which Lerner, to his credit, does not shy away from—but it is at moments such as these where he is in danger of over-stretching himself.

A critique of Japanese standards of masculinity in Convenience Store Woman comes from an unlikely candidate in the form of Shiraha, an incel whom Keiko invites to stay at her apartment in order to present a veneer of a socially acceptable lifestyle to her friends and family. He has no redeeming qualities: he is lazy, selfish, rude, misogynistic, and downright predatory. In that sense, Shiraha is a flat character—which makes it all the more unsettling for the reader, who can somewhat sympathise with his feelings of alienation while being disgusted by his behaviour and beliefs. Shiraha is obsessed with drawing parallels between modern-day life and the Stone Age, lamenting that men are still expected to be the breadwinners and that only the most successful among them are coupled with the prettiest women. It is understandable how Shiraha has developed such views—there remain highly entrenched gender roles in Japanese society, and intense anxiety at being judged has contributed towards a phenomenon known as hikikomori, whereby at least a million Japanese men have withdrawn from society for six or more consecutive months to become social recluses. Yet as Keiko astutely notes, Shiraha “seemed to have this odd circuitry in his mind that allowed him to see himself only as the victim and never the perpetrator”. The anger of incels such as Shiraha is misplaced: they are bitter at being ranked at the bottom of society’s social (and, in particular, sexual) hierarchy, rather than at the existence of the hierarchy itself. I suspect that Lerner’s use of the phrase “adolescence without end” is a deliberate reference to Tamaki Saitō’s bestselling psychology book Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End, and thus serves as a call for readers to recognise the universality of the boys who never grow up.

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Sayaka Murata, like her protagonist, spent eighteen years working in a convenience store. Yet she is keen to stress the lack of close parallels with Keiko, insisting in an interview that “I don’t want my work to speak of my own opinions too much; they are the opinions of the protagonist.” In some sense, Murata—who identifies with what she describes as the “grotesque” ordinary person—appears envious of her protagonist’s ability to stand strong in the fact of intense societal pressure (whether this is due to a refusal to succumb or mere obliviousness to its existence). The author’s explicit separation of herself from her characters guards against the unfortunate tendency for female novelists’ work to be excessively scrutinised in a bid to ‘discover’ their autobiographical significance.

By contrast, Lerner directly inserts himself into The Topeka School, creating a piece of auto-fiction in which he loosely dabbles with the narrative of his own childhood. Both Lerner and his protagonist Adam Gordon are 1997 graduates of Topeka High School in Kansas, national debating champions, the son of famous female psychologists, the father of two daughters, and gifted poets (among other things). The book is presented as though it has been written by Adam as an adult, with recollections from his childhood and first-person transcripts from his parents. Is this fusion of fiction and reality liberating or perilous? I felt particularly disturbed by the authenticity I found in Jane’s voice, a supposed synthesis of Lerner’s own mother and his fictional creation. Certain moments, such as Jane reliving her sexual assault, seem far too intimate to denote real events—yet to fictionalise them seems equally troubling.

Lerner is at his most discerning when writing on the peculiar world of competitive debating, of which he was formerly a part. He eloquently details a popular strategy known as ‘the spread’, whereby one aims “to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule being among serious debaters that a ‘dropped argument,’ no matter its quality, its content, is conceded.” There is an agonising moment when the sole woman of colour in the competition gives a superb speech on UN funding, but slips up on her final delivery and is subsequently ejected from the round in favour of young men who rapidly talk through comical chains of reasoning which inevitably end in nuclear apocalypse. As Lerner is keen to point out, the spread is ubiquitous, from the hidden fine print in data consent pop-ups to Trump’s relentless barrage of tweets which leave him unscathed. The overwhelming impression the reader is left with is that of an elitist institution which mirrors the poverty of political debate today.

At times, Adam is overcome by a sense of simultaneous immersion and detachment, where he is so utterly in tune with the rhythm of his speech that it takes a life of its own. The novelist Sally Rooney, in her widely acclaimed article documenting her experience of university debating, refers to this as ‘the flow’: “that form of focus so clear that all distractions, even the ego itself, fall away”. Keiko experiences a similar sensation when she discovers that “the voice of the convenience store won’t stop flowing through me”—the door chimes and scanner beeps pulsate through her as she instinctively responds to the needs of the customers and the store.

In an unorthodox finale to a thoroughly unorthodox book, Keiko arrives at a (somewhat contradictory) moment of self-realisation where she recognises her innate potential as serving the needs of this capitalist enterprise. Perhaps this is merely an instance of alienation, but to Keiko, it feels as though she has been liberated. Meanwhile, The Topeka School ends with older Adam joining a crowd of anti-ICE protestors who form a so-called ‘human microphone’, whereby they repeat the words of a speaker to magnify their collective voice. For Adam, political speech is no longer about scoring points or showing off his razor-sharp wit: it is about contributing towards a meaningful political project. In this moment, Adam ceases to be a man-child figure who perpetually regresses into self-indulgent solipsism, and answers Lerner’s call to move on from the ‘spread’.

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Becky Clark is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.