There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura. Pub 2015. Translation by Polly Barton. Pub 2020.
I don’t usually include fiction on this blog. When I first received this book (as part of a set of books won in a raffle earlier this year), I thought it was a non-fiction book, a guide to job hunting in the realities of a complicated world. It is not really that, but it is a good fable about the difficulties of finding work that is utterly easy, disconnected, or non-impactful.
The narrator of the story has recently left a job due to burnout. She doesn't say at first what the job was, just that the environment and the work were terribly hard on her, such that she is now seeking a job that is as undemanding as possible. Through an employment agency, she embarks on a series of five jobs over the course of a year.
[Spoiler Alert – scroll down to skip this paragraph.] The first is in surveillance, where she watches recordings of the daily life of a writer and DVD collector with the aim of flagging to her supervisor when a particular event occurs. She decides to leave after finding herself more engrossed in the writer’s life and the sting operation than she’s comfortable with, noticing the strange overlaps that develop between her own life and habits and the subject’s own. In the second job, she writes the scripts for advertisements to be played on a local bus route, mostly highlighting businesses along the route. Again, strange things start to happen, as the advertisements seem to be influencing the fate of the businesses and neighbourhood more directly than one might expect. In the third, she is hired to write the bits of trivia that are printed on the wrappers for a cracker snack. When she is tasked with taking on an advice column type of writing, she again feels that there is too much both engagement and responsibility in such work. The next position involves installing public service announcement-type posters in a neighbourhood; once again, she gets more involved that she intends. The last job, map-making in a local forest area, promises to be the quintessentially easy job (even the job posting emphasizes that). Here, the appearance of a purported ghost and her subsequent solving of that mystery dispel the notion of easy.
[End of SPOILER.] In each job, it starts out as exactly what she wants - an easy job with no attachment, no opportunity to progress, no work to take home. But in each, despite her original intentions, she finds that connections and engagement emerge, along with intrigue and mystery. Whether unconsciously or with some surreal help, she finds herself pursuing ways to make contributions, and the jobs develop into more than the easy work she was seeking. Along the way are some small-world coincidences and happy accidents, along with some fairly daring escapades, all of which bring her through to a sense of closure and recovery. By the end of the year, amidst some other coincidences that seem to point this way, she is ready to take on more, including possibly returning to her previous role.
Easy Job has a fable-like quality, where there's always a hint of something supernatural going on - not a lot, but just enough to make the settings and situations appear somewhat surreal and lend an air of mystery to the story. Perhaps that is just my own unfamiliarity with fiction from Japan. Regardless, this quality makes the novel very enjoyable. It is a fable about trying to be something that you are not and how running away from something is rarely a solution. In describing her search for an easy job, the narrator thinks, "...I felt that a hole had opened up in my heart. If being busy would prevent me from having to look at that hole, I could probably handle any kind of job."
Another lesson in this fable is how important and valuable a sense of contribution is in any work. The narrator cannot help herself but to seek meaning and ways to contribute in these jobs. Whether by making unbidden suggestions or observations or taking on additional responsibilities to help the team or organization realize its goals, she becomes more engaged – and in some instances, more essential – than she intended. It’s the recognition of the meaning in the work that leads her to leave most of the jobs, as she shies away from looking into her heart. While the break from her previous demanding job is essential for her self-care and recovery, the lessons learned lead her back to the purpose of her work and the application of her strengths - contributing to the well-being of others through compassion and problem solving.
By the end of the story, she has had sufficient time, space, and experience to realize that the title is true: there is no such thing.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? And what about finding an “easy job”? Any success with that?
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