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My career was in the toilet
on 4 November 2009
Literally, in the bathrooms on the forty-fourth floor of the Yumimoto Corporation. This is some comedown given the narrator's early ambition. "When I was little I wanted to become God... When I was about five I realized this would never happen." Never mind, next in line for the young Amélie to aim for was Christ, a dream which lasted another couple of years, when she set her heart on becoming a martyr. Despite these early setbacks, and despite demonstrating a less than godlike aptitude for arithmetic, she can still exclaim - looking down on the "glittering city far below" the forty-fourth floor - "I ruled the world! I was God!"
Just as well we're on her side by this stage of the story - there are few characters who could get away with such declarations without us throwing up either our hands or our breakfast. The absurdity, however, lies not so much in a young girl having male deities as role models but in her grown-up ambition to succeed in the masculine culture of a Japanese multinational corporation. Now that really is bonkers. As well as being female, early on she commits "the crime of showing initiative" and is accused of being an individualist ("the height of injury").
"Your despicable behavior" - says her superior - "is typical of Westerners. You put your personal vanity ahead of the interests of the company." That she is a white girl who understands Japanese has already been remarked upon in a derogatory way, and another boss has made the corporate hierarchy and her place in it very clear: "There is always a means of obeying. That's what Western brains need to understand." This degree of both racism and hemispherism is in part, I suspect, a novelist's hyperbole. Nevertheless, it exaggerates the truth to great comic effect: liberal relativists in the West are so busy affirming the validity and equality of every other people on the planet that it never occurs to them that we Westerners too can be the objects of prejudice.
Amélie-san is not the only one on the receiving end of a managerial dressing down, the most thorough being reserved for her immediate boss, the "ravishingly svelte and graceful" Fubuki Mori. No one in the office speaks up in her defence: "Our submission to absolute authority was abject." The working day at Wernham Hogg is excruciating in many ways, but at least there's an even-handed distribution of humiliation in the Slough office. Life at Yumimoto doesn't seem any fun at all for anyone (with "fear and trembling" is how one should approach the Emperor, or any superior, it seems), least of all for an ambitious white woman like Amélie. Mundane tasks induce an "extraordinary tranquillity" and eliminate all thought. "To think I had been silly enough to get a college degree... My mind was not that of a conqueror, but that of a cow that spends its life chewing contentedly in the meadow of invoices..." Suicide - "a very honorable act" - is always an option, "unless you have been stupid enough to convert to Christianity" or you are a Japanese woman. And there is the work ethic ("in the eyes of the Japanese, you can never work too hard"), which makes our Protestant version seem like a slacker manifesto.
"You have no hope of either being happy or of making others happy... your life means nothing" - this, among other delightful encouragements, is what the Japanese woman takes to heart as she takes her place in the world. Comically different is our narrator's self-deprecating style and dreams of escape, and yet, despite all the cultural contrasts and workplace misunderstandings, she is still trying to connect: "I had no other motive than my good, well-meaning, and stupid humanity." A great novel.