Hiroko Oyamada’s debut novel in English was drawn, it is said, from her experiences working as a temp in the subsidiary of an automaker. If The Factory is any indication, she didn’t take to it.
The unnamed factory of the title is a sprawling institution involved in God alone knows what, but apparently just about everything. Not, however, that we would know that from the jobs of the three workers who tell the story in interleaved and intertwined first-person narratives: Yoshiko is a temp who shreds paper all day (“In times like these, a job’s a job,” she tells her herself); unbeknownst to her, her techie brother—laid off from a job as a systems engineer—gets a job there as a proofreader of sorts. Furufue is enticed from graduate school to head up a new department of one studying moss and its possible applications to green roofing:
The Environmental Improvement Division Office for Green Roof Research didn’t even exist before I was hired. I was the entire department.
It is all tedium; the jobs are pointless. The documents the proofreader red-pens (“Goodbye to All Your Problems and Mine: A Guide to Mental Health Care”) have no evident relevance or purpose; the shredding of we never know what is endless; Furufue never gets around to actual implementation—he doesn’t know why he got the job or what he really supposed to be doing and neither do we. His most concrete achievement is a series of moss tours for local schoolchildren.
This however is not regimented tedium as might expect in some capitalism-run-amok dystopia. The factory is untethered to any economic or commercial reality; it is additionally all very disorganized. No one works very hard, there are no objectives, people doze off—and Goto, who hired them all and seems to have some residual responsibility for them, restricts his interaction to bland corporate patter.
Nevertheless, the factory is a stand-in for society—“a world of its own,” Furufue thinks. There is some life outside it, but not much (and for Furufue who lives and eats there, none at all), and a job at the factory—even as a temp or contract worker and no matter how bewildering—is considered by one’s parents and peers as far better than the alternative.
Discomfiting and disconcerting, The Factory is short, clocking in at just over 100 pages.
Oyamada can certainly write. The Factory won the Shincho Prize for New Writers (and a further work won the Akutagawa Prize); the translation by David Boyd is fluent and atmospheric, maintaining a sense that this is a Japanese dystopia, not just via the smattering of bento boxes and soba, but also in the way people interact in a sort of formalized informality.
The Factory, indeed, is more atmosphere than plot. That is perhaps the point: not much happens because not much happens. People within it interact but in ways both random and choreographed, none of it with any real direction. Yoshiko largely says as much:
I don’t want to work. I really don’t. Life has nothing to do with work and work has no real bearing on life. I used to think they were connected, but now I can see there’s just no way…. I thought I’d been giving it everything I had, but what I thought was my everything had no real value. Just look at the way I am now. That’s proof. I don’t want to work. I don’t, but what else am I doing with my life?
Time is elastic and doubles back on itself. The factory itself, the entire institution, perhaps all of society, is benignly malevolent.
The difficulty of course is that a novel about emptiness can also come to seem empty. Perhaps to mitigate this, Oyamada has woven in what appears to be an environmental message: the factory is having an effect—probably deleterious, but like everything else in this surreal novel, it’s never really clear—on the flora and fauna. The factory has an uneasy relationship with birds, lizards and coypu (or nutria, a rodent of South American origin that has gone feral in Japan) which it seems to have affected and which have invaded the factory grounds in their turn.
Discomfiting and disconcerting, The Factory is short, clocking in at just over 100 pages. That’s probably just as well; nothing, even surreally random nothing, can go on for only so long. Having made her point, Oyamada brings the work to a rapid close.