Easy employment? Never heard of her…
In sprawling modern-day Japan, a young woman observes a man through binoculars, taking note of his habits – his tastes in snacks (oven fresh cookies!), his taste in TV shows (NCIS!), the secrets hidden in his DVD collection (who can say) – for the behest of a mysterious agency. Strange? Definitely. A living? Well… that’s debatable.
So opens There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, simultaneously a treatise on the world of work and an exploration of what can happen when you feel that your life is stagnating, the malaise of a thousand quarter-life crises metastasizing in Kikuko Tsumura’s sensitive, insightful, and ultimately transformative take on the floating helplessness that can affect anyone; it goes without saying that it feels oddly, beautifully timely for staying afloat in the midst of a life-changing global pandemic.
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Tsumura’s unnamed heroine is an adrift soul, someone who wants employment, but employment sans the stress, and the novel follows her as she takes on and subsequently departs increasingly ‘easy’ jobs that manage to find a streak of sinister intent running through them, no matter how seemingly innocuous. She takes on a surveillance job observing an author considered to be engaging in illicit activities, then a job making fun facts for rice cracker wrappers, then a job handing out posters. These jobs fail to keep their once-appealing simplicity – the surveillance position ends, the rice cracker factoids turn her into a beloved idol, replete with the kind of responsibility our heroine doesn’t want, and the poster job lands her squarely in the crosshairs of an insidious cult. These turns are literary and funny in equal measure and Tsumura’s whip-smart prose is aided by a wonderful, PEN-prize-winning translation from Polly Burton.
The language is singular and unadorned, presenting this world with a straightforward sense of purpose and making it clear that for all of the magical realism elements that infuse the novel – the heroine’s gig of producing audio advertisements for a bus company has the unexpected power of causing businesses to pop out of reality – this is still a world grounded in real-world problems, such as escalating food prices and the crippling dread of ennui. This isn’t to say that There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is entirely bleak in its position on work – despite its rich vein of paper-dry wit, in the final job it sees our heroine embark on, examining plants in a forest, she comes across resolution and, without spoiling the book’s end, finds herself in a more hopeful state of mind before journey’s end.
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The blurb for this book places it in the same arena as My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Convenience Store Woman and it’s not too hard to see where the comparisons come through – all three feature central protagonists who are dealing, in one way or another, with the tyranny of modern day life, whether it’s through simple living, self-medication to the point of oblivion, or in the case of Easy Job’s narrator, self-discovery through a triumvirate of unusual positions and gigs, none of which provide the professional or personal fulfillment that has been promised to her and previous generations, if they devote themselves to hard work.
It’s also startlingly appropriate for the unique moment in time we’re all living through – encased in our homes, working from laptops balanced on knees or sofas or on dining tables, the entire face of what we’ve come to expect work to be forever altered and changed by the world we’ve been living in the past twelve months or so. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job seems to slowly unfurl the notion of work as the be-all and end-all of fulfillment, pulling away at the ties that have suggested for decades that commitment to work should be our primary motivation. As our work/life balances crumble and reform, and our visions of working life change and adapt in the face of this world-changing event, it’s pleasing to find companionship and solidarity in Kikuko Tsumura’s smart, wryly fun novel that assures you that it’s okay to not have your career together right now – after all, it’s just a job.