While recovering from a nervous breakdown caused by her previous employment, the unnamed heroine in Kikuko Tsumura's There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job embarks on a series of diverting temp jobs for which she willy-nilly aspires to be a Goldilocks among the salarymen: surveilling a recipient of smuggled goods, writing ads for a bus company, creating trivia and self-help content for rice cracker packages, installing public service posters, and punching exhibition tickets in a hut at a city park. Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, the novel, originally written in 2016, uncannily captures our job landscape during COVID — when we have jobs that sit "on the borderline between a job and not."
We may also read this novel as Tsumura's 21st-century response to Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener." While Bartleby resists by staying put, the author's protagonist strives to redefine her professional preferences by submitting to a picaresque array of alternative vocations. Unlike Bartleby's inexorable trajectory from professional devotion to job burnout to eventual death, the heroine's meandering quest takes her down many rabbit holes, with her self-imposed exile — a form of liberation — as a connecting thread.
The idea of exile as a necessary process toward self-knowledge is an old theme in Japanese literature. In the novel's context, a self-imposed exile functions as a disguise, disappearance, or erasure — providing a temporary space for the heroine to experiment before her reintegration into her affirmed role. This idea does not support a Pyrrhic stance against the establishment — as in Bartleby's case — but a gradual rapprochement between individual and society.
The novel's serialized structure — which presents a wry anthropological view of Japanese workplace relations — allows Tsumura to subtly expose her milieu's entrenched gender bias. Her book may as well be called There's No Such Thing as An Easy Job for a Woman. Regardless of the job, our heroine invariably reports to a male superior — who often expects her to grasp nuances above and beyond the job description. Interestingly, each new job seems to require the heroine to become more emotionally invested, even as the job description becomes ostensibly less challenging:
Rather than doing the kind of job where I'd be involved with lots of people and become a central pillar of the establishment,I was [told I would be] better off in a role that I could fulfill calmly and peaceably ... and yet I couldn't help but feel that this position was turning out to be different than expected.
By retreating from her "real job" to try her hand at other, seemingly less taxing jobs, the protagonist finds that her ability to influence a company's decision-making process arises precisely from the transient, provisory nature of her position. All five of her temp jobs — from the first surveillance post — represent variations on the detective story and/or corporate espionage theme. She is most effective when assuming the role of a de-facto spy/detective, by gathering relevant information, interacting empathetically with others, and making cogent findings that align the customers' concerns with her employer's objectives. She excels at working behind the scenes, accomplishing reconnaissance feats that her male colleagues deem both inspired and distasteful.
Tsumura eloquently contrasts her depictions of male prejudice with examples of female solidarity. The protagonist's deep respect for Ms. Eriguchi — her colleague at the bus company — is based on the latter's intellect, acumen, and kindness, notwithstanding her youth. Overall, however, the author is careful not to make her feminist message too explicit.
In real life, Tsumura experienced workplace harassment so severe in her first job out of college that she had to leave her position, but in the novel her protagonist's career burnout is defined as a vague, gender-neutral condition caused by an excessive engagement with her work — a tendency that also afflicts another male character. It's not apparent that their respective breakdown is tied to any incident of workplace discrimination. Similarly, in the job installing public service posters, the protagonist's successful grassroots campaign against Lonely No More! — a cult-like organization — comes across mainly as a protest against systemic violation of privacy rights, rather than an outright denunciation of the organization's toxic patriarchal values.
Tsumura's advocacy aspires toward incremental, harmonious change, granting her characters a congenial caper from the duty-bound tenets of Japanese work culture. Polly Barton's British translation, having words such as a total tip (a complete mess); was not half convenient (was very convenient); moreish (tasty); skiver (a job shirker); and put paid to (finish) serves as a weirdly appropriate lens to approach the novel. This double distancing effect — British flavor imposed on a Japanese oeuvre — encourages us to imagine the voice of Tsumura's narrator/avatar as both cheeky and self-deprecating, the perfect balance to wage a stealth feminist revolution.
Thúy Đinh is coeditor of Da Màu and editor-at-large at Asymptote Journal. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.