A prizewinning novelist's surreal tale of millennial burnout

Kikuko Tsumura's curious tale follows other cult novels about unambitious women stuck in the thankless carousel of contemporary labour—but offers a different ending

November 26, 2020
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“God,” a friend of mine recently confided to me, “needs to make a comeback.”

She sounded like she was joking, she continued, but she wasn’t. Growing up in the overwhelmingly secularised milieu of millennial city-dwellers was not delivering her any meaning, particularly during the era of Covid-19. The already apparently trivial demands she faced daily at work seemed to not slow down, but rather accelerate. Her bosses were still urgently demanding her to work to an increasingly arbitrary schedule; clients still desperately needed action from her, today. At a time of mass suffering, there seemed little to reflect on how best to live.

The protagonist in Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, translated by Polly Barton (and the first of Tsumura’s novels to be translated into English), lives in a world bereft of meaning, flitting between—like my friend, like most of us—roles that promise us a respectable claim to adult life: jobs. An unnamed 36-year-old living in a nondescript modern Japanese city, Tsumura’s protagonist leaves her decades-long career in social care due to burnout. She becomes an itinerant visitor to her job centre, where the eternally patient recruiter Mrs Masakado places her in low-paid temporary positions that offer steady, albeit meagre, income. She writes copy for advertisements to be broadcast on a bus; puts up posters in a neighbourhood with elderly citizens; sits in a one-person hut perforating entry tickets in a sprawling national park. Some places offer health insurance. Others do not. Above anything, the protagonist reminds herself not to get too attached to the job at hand, because she cannot afford the risk of expending too much mental energy: “I had no idea when I might burn out next.”

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job follows several successful books documenting the grinding nature of contemporary white-collar work. Its marketing copy compares it to Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which both follow misfit female protagonists with a troubled relationship to their workplaces. The New York Times’s Parul Sehgal has argued that the “exalted expectations and dashed hopes” of the traditional romance novel is now found in fiction about work; “specifically, late capitalism’s carousel of grinding, precarious labour.” But Tsumura’s novel does not dwell on the thanklessness of such labour, even if the notion supplies its form. As suggested by the title, the apparent “easy” nature of our protagonist’s jobs quickly becomes supplanted by supernatural, humorous mysteries. While scoping out businesses interested in advertising on the local bus route, the narrator discovers an uneasy relationship between the companies that chose to advertise and those that do not. For the reader, this produces a sense of curiosity bordering on delight:

[su_quote]Gazing out the window at the road I knew very well, feeling encumbered by the realisation that I still hadn’t decided what to have for dinner, I suddenly jumped at the sight of a five-storey building in a vivid cherry red.

‘Do you like the sun? Dancing Javier Bardem? Then pop in and see us at the Far East Flamenco Centre, for lessons in Spanish, cooking and—of course—flamenco!’

All of the windows in the building had yellow curtains… Gaping up at the red building, which I assumed had to be the Far East Flamenco Centre as it moved past the window, I half doubted my eyes. Had it really always been there?... how was it possible that a building like that had just escaped my notice?[/su_quote]

A straightforward role putting up public service announcements soon draws her into a cult that preys on the lonely. Even sitting in an empty hut in the middle of nowhere has its difficulties. She meets the woman she replaced, someone who strikes her as “too neurotic for her own good,” who warns her of a local ghost.

The brutal nothingness of much of contemporary labour can create, and indulge, anxious neurosis, a common character trait in modern novels on work. But Tsumura’s protagonist refuses to give into too much introspection. Meeting the neurotic, she flatly observes “you came across such people from time to time. Mostly they weren’t bad sorts… but they themselves were incapable of stepping free of their anxiety, even if provided with material that should by rights have assuaged it.”

She, on the other hand, is a self-admittedly “very run-of-the-mill kind of person”. When confronted with material that should produce such flights of anxiety—she runs into cults, drug busts, and apparent ghosts—she investigates them, sniffing for clues without fear, or much feeling at all. They do not grant her deliverance, just temporary amusement. The predominant drive in her life is to conserve the little energy she has left, which means avoiding excitement, passion, and drama: “I ended up feeling unconditional respect for anybody engaged in their work with such a passion. I was all too aware that such a trait was destined to cause me hardship in my own working life.” If the neurotic in the modern “work novel” is an impotent rebel of their time, rattling about with nervous energy and intent on finding evidence for their specialness that cannot be satisfied by the social conditions of the world, Tsumura’s protagonist embodies the subject that these conditions prefer: a flat, self-admittedly unexceptional one, never falling off the ever-demanding track of work by wanting, thinking, or feeling too much.

Though the narrator has little time for leisure or socialising—the only relationship she has outside work appears to be with her mother, with whom she lives—there is a sense that her exhaustion is a shared condition. When hearing stories of others quitting their jobs due to vicious colleagues, the narrator reflects on her previous workplaces: “I’d never experience anyone being out-and-out mean to me. It seemed that if people had any scrap of energy to spare, they preferred to put it to use either in doing their job or in their private life.” In the narrow confines of her life, “other people” are mostly referred to by the narrator in this way: oblique entities out there in the ether, most likely having a breakdown of their own (former employees in a surveillance company she temporary works with are sent to the “psychosomatic medicine department”; at a rice cracker company, she replaces a middle-aged man who is off work from depression “brought on by his search for a wife.”)

Upon reaching its conclusion, the “work novel,” can choose to either deliver transcendence for its subjects, or double down on the apparent pointlessness of their condition. (A perverse form of deliverance is suggested in both My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Convenience Store Woman, which conclude with the 9/11 attacks and rediscovering one’s purpose in life respectively. The former shakes the narrator out of what political scientist Corey Robin deemed the hazy "end of history" slumber of the US; the convenience store woman decides that she really does belong in a convenience store). In the ending of There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, the narrator gets drawn into the life of a man who, also burned out from his job as a social worker, attempts to flee society altogether.

He describes his life with a simple gesture: “Mr Sugai held up a hand and swam his fingers through the air in a wavelike motion, before finally lifting them in a high arc and plugging them down.” “This was clearly a thing of his,” the narrator concludes, “to illustrate life’s undulations with this wave-like gesture.” There is no salvation here, just undulating variations of the same theme. “Accepting these ups and downs, choosing to take on difficult jobs—that’s what life is about” Sugai concludes. You get a sense that there might be something more, if only you had the energy to look.

There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job, Kikuko Tsumura (Bloomsbury, £12.99)