The Factory is an indictment of capitalism: the way it uses us, the ways it fails us, the way it hurts us.
Flipping through Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, the reader might notice peculiar long paragraphs that sometimes run a couple of pages, making up heavy blocks of text. In fact, though The Factory is a slim book, at first glance it could be off-putting. Lines of thought change without warning. Character dialogue proceeds without the usual paragraph breaks. And when you least expect it, the scene concludes and you find yourself in another scene, mid-action, sometimes mid-conversation. The Factory is disorienting; reading it makes one feel trapped in a maze, where every turn leads down another endless corridor of blank walls until those walls give and you’re suddenly somewhere else. The metaphor is apt for a satire about workplace bureaucracy.
The Factory follows the stories of three new employees at a company known only as the factory. First, we meet Yoshiko, a recent college graduate who can’t seem to keep a job. She applies for a position at the factory at the recommendation of her brother and is surprised when she gets a call back. But her hopes are dashed when she is offered a contract job instead of a full-time position, one in the vaguely named “Print Services” department on the equally vaguely named “Staff Support team.” She takes the job anyway because “in times like these,” she says, “a job’s a job, even if it pays by the hour, even if it isn’t permanent, even if it’s physical labor.” She is then led to her work station and given her new duties, what she will do 7.5 hours per day: shredding documents. (“I never had to use a single brain cell.”)
Elsewhere in the factory, Yoshio, a former university researcher, is brought on as an expert bryologist for a green roofing project and sole member of the “Division Office for Green-Roof Research.” “Green-roofing has been a real blind spot, though,” Yoshio is told at an interview which turns out to be his first day on the job. “And that’s when HQ finally decided to step in and deal with it on their own.” Tasked with developing a roof of moss for the entire factory, Yoshio is given no timeline, no budget restrictions, no supervision and no purpose to this project. What he is given is a home on-site where he works every day with no end goal in sight, a source of great and endless existential anxiety.
Finally, there’s Yoshiko’s brother, called by his last name Ushiyama. Once a systems engineer for a small company, he is abruptly terminated. His girlfriend, an agent at a temp agency, has a solution: temp work at the factory as a proofreader. The job is tedious and doesn’t use any of his skills. It’s “the sort of job even a middle-schooler could handle,” he admits. At the same time, no one knows what these documents being proofread are and it’s unclear if anything is happening with these edits. “Someone somewhere is probably doing something with our edits,” says a co-worker, “but we don’t even know who.” And to the surprise of all the workers “eventually the same thing comes back,” making for a futile loop of work. Still, Yoshiko finds no reason to complain. “Having work beats not having work,” he ends up thinking, a refrain that increasingly becomes familiar as the novel oscillates between these three stories that eventually connect.
Beyond Oyamada’s work-weary characters, we learn of the factory itself. The first thing we should know is that it’s massive. “The factory was a world of its own,” Yoshio notices, with different regions and hundreds of buildings—including “supermarkets, a bowling alley, karaoke…a fishing center…a hotel…a post office and a bank, a travel agency, a couple of bookstores, an optometrist, a barber, an electronics store, a gas station.”
The factory also looms beyond its confines, as Yoshiko states early on, setting up the quietly ominous tone of the novel: “The factory’s influence over the city was too great to ignore. Everyone has at least one family member working for the factory, or one of its partners or subsidiaries. Vans and trucks with its logos can be seen on every street, and ambitious parents start nudging their kids toward a factory career even before they can read.”
Its presence, we soon learn, is not benign. As the workers soon notice, mysterious black birds begin to appear at the edge of the factory; a new species of coypu is spotted in the factory’s drains; and, most peculiarly, small lizards hide in the factory’s washing facilities where they “consume undissolved detergent and dust that is high in protein.” And to make matters more absurd, a so-called “Forest Pantser…a middle-aged man, maybe on the elderly side, who ran around the forest trying to pull the pants off men and women of all ages” is rumored to be lurking on campus, waiting for a victim.
At its core, The Factory is an indictment of capitalism: the way it uses us, the ways it fails us, the way it hurts us. It’s a mirror to our own world, but a distorted one. Indeed, much can be said about Oyamada’s skill at world building, from the idiosyncratic details of the factory to the structure of the book itself when we come to question how long these characters have been in the factory and how much time has passed, suggesting the factory is inescapable. She creates not so much a labyrinth but an entire ridiculous, claustrophobic and sinister world.
“[I]t was just too absurd. What idiot dreamed this up?” Yoshio comments early on about his job. But, of course, Oyamada is no idiot. Inspired by the author’s own experience working as a temp for an automaker’s subsidiary, The Factory sees through all the illusions generated by the modern workplace. Oyamada’s writing, translated by David Boyd, is sharp, her observations biting and spot-on. The Factory marks the English-language debut of a whip-smart writer, one who has much to say about the world we live in and how we live in it.