I read this book for the Japanese Reading Challenge 17.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job – Kikuko Tsumura
Single female, mid-thirties, living with her parents in Tokyo, our Nameless Narrator has experienced a nervous breakdown due to the stress and exhaustion of overwork. So she asks her career consultant to find her a simple job, in which only every now and then something new but not drastic happens, that doesn't involve fraught human relations, and with a minimal commute. In short, she thinks that she wants a job kind of like being dead only without the grief-stricken relatives and the postmortem guilt that due to your up and dying, some poor galoot has got to take your tasks on top of their own.
Her career consultant, a nice woman in her sixties, asks her canny questions and finds her jobs that fit the bill. The jobs are all unusual, but not implausible. They present unique challenges, miseries, and satisfactions. And over the course of time on task, Nameless comes to realize that she is still exposed to human beings in all their delightful and exasperating glory.
Despite her inclination to keep herself to herself, Nameless is only a human being with a human nature which has an innate tendency to be oriented to other human beings. Being social by nature as we all are, Nameless finds that to some degree she will get involved in the lives of supervisors, colleagues, clients, and just anybody seen regularly. In no job are we delivered over to death to become a ghost, just watching the living do their mundane activities, unable to reach out in the darkness and find a friend.
Our Nameless Narrator is totally relatable. Like Nameless, we may dream about how much easier it would be to have few responsibilities, distant supervision, and enjoy colleagues and subordinates doing what they ought to be doing, on time, getting it goof-free every time. But we also know while work is an unavoidable necessity and it has its upsides, we must be careful not to have a love-hate relationship with our job. Like us grizzled veterans of toil and moil, she learns to moderate her sense of duty and vocation. She stops aggravating herself emotionally about the alleged badness of her situation.
In her hard-won insight, Nameless suspects, like us hardcore readers, that she is one of the few left in the world with any standards, that so-called normal people have lost any sense of decorum and accept a life full of flavorless red softballs because they have forgotten what tomatoes used to taste like. For instance, Nameless is shocked that ordinary people would write for life advice to a rice-cracker company to print on their packaging. Talk about leading lives of quiet desperation!
And the scandalized tone is hoot, laugh out loud funny in places, subtly comic and indirect in the genuine Japanese manner. The translator Polly Barton grew up in West London and the English dryness and understatement really fit the stance and tone. Barton studied philosophy at Cambridge which will, I trust and hope, instill a respect and care for words.
In conclusion, deceptively plain and readable and well worth it if one likes serious points in a light-hearted style. The writer seems to be making the point that we disgruntled employees have to, for the sake of our own serenity, exercise our judgement. Cultivate a moderate sense of vocation and duty. Wisdom calls for doing what is in our power to make situations more bearable for ourselves and coworkers, not falling into anxiety or depression, not procrastinating, not stamping our foot at the terms and conditions of our hostile universe. Even when sour or half-assed is the outcome, it is better for our own self-respect if we can honestly say to ourselves with the information and resources we were given, we did our best for the job, for other people, for our own sanity.