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An unquiet life: There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura, reviewed

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job Kikuko Tsumura, translated by Polly Barton

Bloomsbury, pp.339, 12.99

Kikuko Tsumura is a multi-prizewinning Japanese author whose mischievously deceptive new novel takes us into what purports to be the office world of Tokyo. The routine at first seems familiar, but intriguing disparities emerge: the present is also a foreign country. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job gives us the minutiae of everyday working life — but not as we know it. Think Diary of a Nobody without the Pooterish self-regard. Or Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine, freed from lunchtime restrictions.

A burnt-out young woman wants a job without responsibility — no stress, no demands. First up: a surveillance assignment observing a novelist suspected of receiving contraband goods. Via hidden cameras, slumped at an office monitor, she keeps watch on him, and as the dead hours unroll she finds herself tracking his TV viewing, craving the food he eats, even criticising his literary output, sharing ‘if not his joy and sadness, then certainly his boredom’.

The surveillance ends, and she joins a team producing audio ads for a local bus company. Undemanding enough, until she becomes aware that shops and offices on the bus route are mysteriously disappearing, while others appear, unnervingly linked to the ads. With a touch of techno magic realism, the author slyly questions the relationship between advertising and success or failure — indeed existence itself. The wittily deadpan translation by Polly Barton has won a PEN prize.

What next for our narrator? Digging up fun facts for the back of rice cracker wrappers. The crackers are delicious (squid and mirin, shredded seaweed and bonito flakes) but her wrapper facts prove disconcertingly popular: fan letters flood in, and responsibility looms. She flees. A straightforward stint handing out feelgood posters to local residents lands her in a risky moral battle with a creepily sinister cult.

Tsumura has a sharp eye for the absurdities of white-collar admin, the solace of workplace friendships, the insidious anxieties, and the consoling siren lure of fast food (those Inarizushi parcels and jumbo manju sound irresistible), but the novel is feeling its way into deeper waters.

What seems the least challenging job —checking out edible vegetation in a national park forest — turns out to be not only demanding but life-changing. Some longueurs creep in here, but the novel’s surreal charm wins through, pointing up the looking-glass aspect of the narrator’s world: confronted by what she’s running away from, the fantastical and the ordinary become interchangeable, as she stumbles into what she’s really been searching for all along.

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