‘Embracing the Ups and Downs’: A Cultural Lens for Careerism
Review: There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura
In American literature over the last decade, the unpleasant female protagonist is having something of a moment. These women are not the principled and heroic figures of classic literature. They’re smart — to be sure, they’re every bit as educated as Lizzie Bennett and Jo March, but they’re not interested in using their talents for good. They’re interested, largely, in themselves and, because I am an American reader, my thoughts when encountering these females usually fall along the lines of: Well, who can blame them? Is this really the life our extortionate education debt was intended to justify?
And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Career. These women are unhappy and angry because, for the millennial generation, professional occupation is more closely associated with despair than fulfillment.
2015’s Jillian is a prime example. Halle Butler’s protagonist, Megan, is working a dead-end secretarial job in a gastroenterology office with a coworker she despises. Her mean-spirited commentary about her situation highlights the banality of professional life (and life in general). At one point, Megan spends a Saturday morning “wondering what she could do to convince people that she was crazy (therefore a victim) and not an asshole (therefore just an asshole).” The trouble is, she’s both.
The victims of capitalism are (resoundingly, if our literature at all approximates reality) assholes.
Similarly, in the 2018 smash hit My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator is so disgusted with modern existence that she — you guessed it — opts to rest and relax for an entire year via a medication-induced unconsciousness. For Moshfegh’s leading lady (speaking for a generation of disaffected young adults, perhaps), “good strong American sleep” is the only cure for ennui. More recently, in 2020’s Indelicacy, Amina Cain’s protagonist, Vitória, has more agency, though her exercise of it is a far cry from principled. In fact, she might be considered the inverse of Lizzie Bennett, who refused to marry for economic security. Indeed, rather than passive-aggressively dissecting her situation (like Megan) or burying her head in a psychological sandbox (like Moshfegh’s heroine), Vitória intentionally marries into money to buy herself freedom from employment. In that sense, at least, she attempts corrective action, though trading social classes is ultimately just trading one discontent for another.
Does this lineup of miserable women say something more broadly about modern women in America? I have no idea. But if literature is a reflection of a culture, by comparison, something really interesting is going on in Japan. Which brings me to Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job.
The structure of Easy Job mirrors its content. There are five chapters and Tsumura’s narrator works five temporary jobs, one for each chapter. The chapters are linear but, with few exceptions, there is almost no character continuity; the protagonist and her employment recruiter are the only recurring characters. The story unfolds much more like a collection of linked vignettes than a true novel.
Every chapter begins with the acceptance of a job, which ends, full stop, with the chapter. In the first chapter, “The Surveillance Job,” the narrator is tasked with reviewing video footage of a novelist who lives alone and works from home. The protagonist’s employer has reason to believe there is contraband in the novelist’s house and, when that contraband is eventually located, the job ends, though not before the protagonist realizes that her request for a job “along the lines of sitting all day in a chair” might have been ill-advised. Concluding that surveillance is not a job “suited for an over-thinker,” the protagonist revises her request and thus begins “The Bus Advertising Job.” In the second chapter, involving an advertising campaign for the local bus line, the protagonist becomes enamored with Ms. Eriguchi, her remarkably competent coworker. When Ms. Eriguchi leaves the company, the protagonist doesn’t have the heart to stay, either. In “The Cracker Packet Job,” the narrator writes trivia that appears on the packaging of a popular brand of rice crackers — and she excels. Eventually, she grows to enjoy the job so much that the fear of losing the job becomes overwhelming. In the fourth chapter, “The Postering Job,” the narrator finally levels with her recruiter. “I’d like an easy job,” she says, and ends up canvassing outdoors in a neighborhood inhabited by elderly citizens. Unfortunately, her posters (which read, “Make Our Town Greener!” and “Water Belongs to Everyone”) are in competition with messaging from a cult-like organization called Lonely No More, which ultimately drives out her employer. In the last and final chapter, the protagonist finally gets what she thought she was looking for. In “The Easy Job in the Hut in the Big Forest,” the protagonist works alone performing menial tasks in a National Park and occasionally takes a walk in the woods. When she discovers a man living in the Park, she is finally forced to confront the question she’s been running from, and readers are finally given some amount of insight about the circumstances that led to the narrator’s job-hopping.
Tsumura’s English-language debut reminded me strongly of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman for the obvious reasons. Both explore the inner psyches of modern Japanese women at odds with cultural expectations, particularly in the realm of the workplace. Both feature women who are oddballs playing hard at “normal.” But what I found especially striking as an American reader was the women’s temperaments.
These women are not the misanthropes encountered in contemporary American literary fiction — and this is true notwithstanding the fact that they’re experiencing an identical trauma: a disinclination to follow society’s prescription for functional adulthood.
Further, while the storylines of all of the aforementioned American protagonists included intimate relationships — Megan has a serious boyfriend; Moshfegh’s narrator has a best friend and an ex-boyfriend; Vitória has a friend and a husband — Tsumura’s and Murata’s landscapes were strikingly devoid of personal relationships. Tsumura’s protagonist has a mother, with whom she lives but does not interact, as well as various professional acquaintances that begin and end in their respective chapters. In short, like their American counterparts, these Japanese women are just barely “pulling off being a person” (to borrow Murata’s phrasing). And yet, instead of surliness and contempt, Tsumura and Murata imbue their characters with something like … pep. These protagonists remain, even inside their own minds (maybe especially inside their own minds) quirky and charming, and, well, likable. Reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation felt like an exercise in masochism. Reading There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job was enjoyable. I wish there had been slightly more continuity between chapters, but my criticisms beyond that are minimal.
Rating: 4 stars
Which is more important, I wonder — not to be lonely, or to live the life you’ve chosen for yourself?
I realized very clearly that I was currently looking at two people who unquestioningly swallowed the idea that talking to someone face-to-face automatically entailed a lack of psychological distance between you. The very notion made me tremble in agitation. What on Earth was that about? Did everyone from this generation feel like that?
Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.