There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumara, translated by Polly Barton
Kikuko Tsumara’s protagonist is burnt out beyond description from work. “If I read more than one side of A4 a day, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of such despondency that I was unable to function,” she explains of her symptoms, remaining characteristically casual.
So she asks a job recruiter for a position that requires as little thinking as possible, one “practically without substance.” But witnessing the five jobs she undertakes, we understand that this solution was deceptively straightforward.
She monitors surveillance footage of a struggling writer, crafts advertisements for a bus line, writes trivia for cracker packets, puts up posters, and perforates tickets in a national park. Each job comes with its own peculiarities and sometimes even supernatural components, but one thing remains constant. She realizes she cannot avoid becoming invested in her work — a feeling of commitment and motivation that she also unfortunately finds hard to separate from pleasure.
A critique of late capitalist life narrated by a mildly hapless female character, Tsumara’s novel has been compared to American versions of this subgenre, but still feels completely different — almost mercifully so. At 36, our protagonist is slightly older, and with fourteen years as a medical social worker under her belt, slightly more self-aware. Her anonymity and sparse backstory allow the novel to extend outside of the individual neurosis; it devotes most of its page space, in fact, to the trivialities and conversations of her many colleagues. In one scene, she expresses a tepid gratitude that she can sit alongside her coworker and together, simply “wallow in our unremarkable reminiscences.”
By the novel’s end, it becomes increasingly unclear what our protagonist is avoiding. She instead has learned that “there’s no such thing as an easy job,” by which Tsumara means, there is no job from which you will emerge unchanged.
Popular Longing by Natalie Shapero
Just as Natalie Shapero’s Popular Longing begins to collect, and her style—long sentences breaking across lines, twisting around questions—becomes familiar, Shapero delivers a line that stands by itself. No words have dropped from the phrase before to lead here. No new sentence begins to whirl a reader away.
“Don’t make a speech.”
Popular Longing is constantly moving around what is left unsaid, so when Shapero commands you not to speak—it’s the only time she writes a command in a line by itself—she is at her most serious. Shapero can be funny, and she is, many times, but she’s also devastating as she observes people saying and doing things they cannot possibly mean: a one-night stand, “trying to be dreamlike,” says, “in the next life, we’ll really be together” (3). An abusive, self-aggrandizing devil with “several advanced degrees” attempts to claim he is “a luminous autodidact” (20).
Shapero makes dark turns with sayings like these, showing how empty their meaning is. When someone at a wedding lists relatives who are too ill to attend, and says, “Keep them in your thoughts,” only Shapero takes the command seriously. A second later, as everyone is dancing and drinking and celebrating, only the speaker remembers who’s not there. Everyone else is dead, and she is “still sitting there at the rented table, / in front of a single charred onion on a skewer, / thinking of all the guests who had to decline” (23).
There are no easy answers in Popular Longing. Sometimes, Shapero deftly skewers the ridiculous things people like to tell themselves, like “Death is a part of life” (21) and “Everybody’s working for the weekend” (28). But other times, in the middle of picking something apart, she realizes she’s totally forgotten why a rule or a saying is true. Popular Longing dissects so well what’s taken for granted, but it’s also sharply realistic about why it dissects, and teases, in the first place: “Mocking…/…helps me forget / about all the times it has of course happened” (42).
– Wick Hallos