A review of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton
I have a friend who writes about work. She writes about team-building strategies and co-working spaces, working from home and how to avoid burnout. About how to strike a good work–life balance, finding ways of doing a job you love. It seemed unusual at me at first, that writing about employment could be a job. But then, as recruitment officer Mrs Masakado says in Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, ‘“There are so many jobs in this world I still don’t know a thing about.”’ Even the world of work, which we might expect to be humdrum, is consistently full of surprises.
One thing I do know is that before she writes another word, that friend of mine needs a copy of this book. Recently translated into English by Polly Barton, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job tackles the theme of employment with a rare astuteness and wicked sense of humour that ought to make the novel a runaway success in English as well as its original Japanese. Told through the framework of five supposedly simple jobs, it is a sly, incisive examination of society’s obsession with employment – how we tend to define ourselves by what we do rather than who we are – which uses comedy to deliver a troubling message about stress, burnout and widespread loneliness, particularly among the young in urban environments.
By far the most compelling aspect of the novel is the first-person narrator, whose name we never learn, but who has one of the sharpest and most likeable voices I have encountered in fiction for some time. We first meet her in an ‘easy job’ she has taken after burnout forced her to quit her job as a medical social worker and, at the age of thirty-six, move back in with her parents. From watching surveillance tapes of an author suspected of harbouring contraband to writing trivia for the back of rice-cracker packets, the novel follows her increasingly thwarted search for ‘a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not’. Aided by the unflappable Mrs Masakado, our narrator gradually learns that there is in fact no such thing as an easy job: each position comes with its own challenges, which gradually become more social in nature. By the final two – ‘the postering job’ and ‘the easy job in the hut in the big forest’ – she has come to learn a lot about society and her position within it, finding that she is not alone in her feelings about employment, and that meaningful connection with others – even through the medium of a job – is what gives life colour and substance.
While the message of the novel is made abundantly clear in the closing pages – a device that in any other book may have run the risk of seeming twee, but works here purely because of the light-hearted tone that precedes it – it is one that creeps up gradually, appearing through the haze of a dreamlike sequence of events. Tsumura uses surrealism to great effect: in our narrator’s second job, which involves writing advertising copy for a bus company, strange disappearances begin affecting the businesses she deals with, while in the final chapter, the mysterious forest setting featuring a blank map and a shadowy cave is deliciously shiver-inducing. Tsumura, however, makes a welcome move in resolving the majority of these surrealist escapades with plain old reality, underlining as she does so the absurdities of being alive. Our narrator helps by never being willing to believe in fantasy – she is too clear-headed, too rationally minded, to give in to fears or silly superstitions. Her struggle with herself is one of the novel’s charms: we as readers know she is far smarter and more socially adept than she would ever give herself credit for.
Although she describes herself as ‘a chronic over-thinker’ (in many ways true: in her fourth position, she spends a considerable amount of time worrying about whether she is ‘exercising an unnecessary degree of enthusiasm’ for her job), our narrator is in fact extremely insightful, a warm, compassionate and quick-witted person whom I wanted as a friend. There is no doubt that Tsumura has done a superb job of creating an entirely believable character with a well-defined voice and the ability to deliver sharp one-liners that had me creasing with laughter, but all credit is due, really, to Polly Barton for having transported this voice so masterfully into English. Filled with particular inflections, sentence structures and turns of phrase that are entirely idiomatic but combine to create a sense of a very individual voice, the consistency of tone in this novel is remarkable. There were plenty of phrases that made me smile – see ‘a face like the sole of a worn-down shoe’ – but any translator who can so smoothly insert words like ‘kibosh’ and ‘icky’ is more than deserving of respect. There is a confident, nuanced feel to this translation that makes me suspect Barton and Tsumura are extremely well matched.
For all its pacey plot and smile-inducing narrator, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job contains a sombre thread about the many unseen, unheard stories of people who, like our narrator and her friends, are ‘gritting their teeth and clinging on as best they could’. While our narrator may spend much of the novel uncertain about how to strike the right balance between fulfilment, mental health, salary and benefits like health insurance, this is nothing compared to the dilemmas facing some of the characters we meet later on, while the passages dealing with loneliness are especially perturbing. As our narrator puts it, with her perceptive bluntness: ‘Nobody’s life was untouched by loneliness; it was just a question of whether or not you were able to accept that loneliness for what it was. Put another way, everyone was lonely, and it was up to them whether they chose to bury that loneliness through relationships with other people’. While it is true that social isolation, particularly among the young, is a growing problem in Japan – a topic probed in conjunction with others in Mizuki Tsujimura’s cult novel Lonely Castle in the Mirror, translated by Philip Gabriel and published next month – it is a universal issue and one we should all take note of, particularly as our world becomes ever more digital and pressurised.
Serious messages conveyed with empathy and humour in a whip-smart voice: put simply, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job has pretty much everything I’m looking for in a novel. An essential read for anyone who has ever worked, Kikuko Tsumura’s words in Polly Barton’s translation are also a brilliant advert for why we need ever more literature in translation. Bringing the world into slightly sharper focus and making me feel personally understood, it is a novel that will stay with me for a long time to come.