“There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job” by Tsumura Kikuko

job

The unnamed narrator in Tsumura Kikuko’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job quits a job she loves after developing “burnout syndrome”. Her first career (the reader won’t find out what it was until the novel’s final pages) has sucked up “every scrap of energy” she had. She asks a recruiter to find her an easy job—something along the lines of “sitting all day in a chair overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skin care products”, she suggests.

Her first “easy job” is as a machine of the surveillance state. She monitors every moment of a half-baked novelist’s life, looking for evidence that he is unwittingly assisting a criminal enterprise by storing contraband in a DVD case. The surveillance firm could search his home, but they are overwhelmed by the size of his film collection. The job is transparently unnecessary.

As she monitors the novelist’s life, she finds that the job fuels her “consumerist desires”. She watches him return home from shopping “as full of life as if he had been reborn”. She covets his impulse buys and the kinds of foods he eats. He has become an unknowing participant in a marketing scheme operating in secret out of his own life.

 

There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job, Kikuko Tsumura, Polly Barton (trans) (Bloomsbury, November 2020)
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, Kikuko Tsumura, Polly Barton (trans) (Bloomsbury, November 2020)

This kind of critique of late-stage capitalism is everywhere. Peers move in and out of the workforce, equally overwhelmed by stress. Parents struggle to balance work and childcare. Jobs disappear. City government threatens to close down an unprofitable local bus line frequented by housewives, children, and the elderly. Consumers find out about world events by reading food wrappers. A sinister organization preys on people who want to be “Lonely No More!” A national park is littered with detritus from the local sports stadium.

Nevertheless, the narrator’s prospects improve as she moves from job to job, and the narrative voice grows less cynical. Tsumura even flirts with the magical, though she never quite leaves realism behind. The narrator writes advertisements for local businesses on a community bus line. (Can one of her coworkers control a business’s plight with the copy she writes?) She designs marketing material on the packaging of gourmet crackers. She puts up public service announcements, stumbling into a fight against a manipulative cult. Finally, she monitors a remote outpost in a large national park that may be haunted by a prehistoric hominid.

 

The novel’s climax finds the narrator exercising skills she must surely have honed in her first career. (Her boss in the national park remarks that the job may “make people realize they can return to their work after all.”) In the novel’s final pages, when the author finally reveals what that first career was, all of the narrator’s contract work appears in a different light. It is this conclusion, dramatically shifting the reader’s understanding of the events in the novel, that makes the novel so satisfying.

Polly Barton’s engaging and readable translation makes sufficient use of Britishisms—”bloody”, “moreish” for “tasty”, “skive off” for “to skip work”—to briefly draw the reader out of a Japanese life and into an incongruously British one.

For all its critique of the modern workplace, the resolution of There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is fairly conventional. Even while new jobs farther away from her original field, the narrator finds herself doing work more and more like what she trained for. She can’t help doing what she loves any more than she can help doing her best, even when she has resolved to do mindless work:

 

After having to leave my old job because of burnout syndrome, I was rationally aware that it wasn’t a good idea to get too emotionally involved in what I was doing, but it was also difficult to prevent myself from taking satisfaction in it. Truthfully, I was happy when people took pleasure in my work, and it made me want to try harder.

 

In the end, there are no easy jobs for the narrator because her deepest desire is to do her best at what she loves—even if nothing changes about the unsustainable conditions that forced her to quit in the first place.


Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction