The Factory, Hiroko Oyamada, New Directions, October 2019, £9.99 (paperback)
Picture a large office, staffed with hundreds of employees. Each worker has their own cubicle, placed in long rows throughout the space to make a corporate honeycomb; their heads are quietly buried in their work. They’re next to each other, but not touching or talking. Their corporate workspaces embody the paradox of the cubicle: a part of something, but also completely isolated.
This imagined scene is emblematic of Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, which was originally published in Japan in 2013, and has been issued in a new English translation with New Directions. The novella chronicles the spectre of corporate culture and its effects through the rotational lens of three characters: Furufue, Yoshiko, and Yoshiko’s brother. All three work in the same Amazon-like conglomerate in Japan, which is known enigmatically as ‘The Factory’.
The factory is all-encompassing: within its limits are multiple restaurants, a barber, a post office, a travel agency, and a shrine with a priest. The company is its own universe, and every family who lives in the adjacent city is involved: Yoshiko, who works as a shredder, tells us that ‘everyone has at least one family member working for the factory’.
The boundaries between family and society, as well as between work life and personal life, are blurred by the integration of the workplace into the surrounding area. For Furufue, who works as a moss specialist, life inside and outside of the factory are practically superimposed onto each other: he lives in an apartment on the company premises. These living arrangements—although not disagreeable to him—are thrust upon him by Goto, the factory’s middle manager. ‘The idea of moving here didn’t bother me,’ Furufue tells us. ‘It was just happening so quickly and without my input, without my knowledge.’
Knowledge, or its absence, is a central theme in Oyamada’s novel. Furufue is brought on to perform a job he’s not qualified for and isn’t confident he’ll be able to accomplish. His uncertainty about his role at the factory mirrors Yoshiko’s confusion about her own position there. ‘Everything feels so disconnected,’ she says. ‘Me and my work, me and the factory, me and society…What am I doing here?’
Furufue and Yoshiko’s perplexity about their place within the company is related to the factory’s ambiguous purpose. No one really knows what the factory makes, or what it does. We vaguely know that it creates ‘products,’ but aren’t clear on what kinds. These questions are never answered, and are both alienating for the reader and fitting for the novella’s project. I found myself frustrated by the vagueness (a symptom of living with the internet 24/7, and being able to find straightforward answers with a quick Google search). Soon, however, I started to acclimatise to this shadowy atmosphere, where knowledge isn’t a given.
Instead of answering questions about the factory’s products or its purpose. Oyamada is far more interested in capturing the meaningless feeling of capitalist wage labor. In the novel, nothing escapes the crushing effect of routinization—even language becomes a kind of automated labour. One of the characters works in proofreading, and another works in shredding documents. The correction and the destruction of language are, therefore, both made rote. Consequently, the factory management controls the relationship between its employees and the written word. This is made even more obvious when they install dividers between workstations in the proofreader’s department to ‘increase productivity’.
Even in her own relationship with language, Oyamada reproduces the feeling of rote labour through her storytelling choices. She accomplishes this by standardising the narrative voices at the beginning of the book so that, at first, the characters appear dramatically indistinct (I was deep into the second chapter before I realized a different character was speaking, and then repeated the experience in the third chapter). The uniformity of the characters speaks to the way rote labour can depersonalise the worker — as Yoshiko’s brother says: ‘I’m doing this work that literally anyone could do, as if nothing I’d ever done in my life even mattered.’ By standardizing her characters’ voices, Oyamada subordinates ease of reading. She disorients the reader, unsettles them. This risk ultimately pays off: the narrative’s experimentalism is well-rendered, and adds a compelling layer to the reading experience.
Despite Oyamada’s somewhat mundane, depersonalised style, the characters’ storylines are discernible as independent plots — much like the partitions between desks in the proofreading department. When, later in the novel, the clean divisions begin to warp, and Yoshiko and Furufue report their interactions from their respective viewpoints in a disorienting sequence of consecutive chapters, it’s as if the walls of a cubicle are being torn down. There’s finally real connection between the characters, even if it’s presented in jagged and confusing ways.
This narrative switch-up fits in with the rest of the novel’s spirit. Shifts are the guiding energy of The Factory, both in the sense that the characters work waged shifts, but also because the novel shifts temporally with them. Years dissolve over the course of a sentence. Near the end of the novel, Yoshiko asks Furufue how long he has been working at the factory – it’s been fifteen years. This information is startling. Up until this conversation, there had barely been an indication of the passage of time. As a worker, he has been dispossessed of his years, and the passage of fifteen of them barely registers. In her toying with time, Oyamada presents the idea that an employee’s time (and, therefore, a large chunk of their life) is not their own. The destabilizing way she delivers this realization is proportionate to how this information should shock and perturb us. In our own capitalist context, our time is not our own; it is our employer’s. For me, this was one of the most affecting moments in the book.
Oyamada, whose own time temping for an automaker’s subsidiary inspired this novella, is interested in the way that the ordinary devolves into the bizarre. Her second novel, The Hole, is about a woman who quits her job, moves away, falls into a hole, and then experiences mysterious occurrences. The surreal quickly seeps into the everyday so that the transformation is almost imperceptible. In the same way that Oyamada’s chronotopic interest in narrative fiction speaks to a deeper idea about the principle form of waged labour, her interest in rumour, in exploring the goings-on in the factory – and the creatures inexplicably drawn to it – also represent abiding truths about the nature of corporate culture.
The unsettling presence of the factory creatures and the inappropriate antics of the Forrest Pantser (a man who goes around pulling people’s trousers down) serve as vehicles to represent familiar corporate concepts: constant internal surveillance, cover-ups to save face, and the fascism of usefulness (to borrow J Bryan Lowder’s phrase). The symbiotic relationship between the status quo and the corporation is maintained at all costs, a maxim that holds true for corporate dramas — both fictional and real.
The Factory, therefore, appears to depict a strange reality, but really points out how similar Oyamada’s surreal world is to our own. This makes it an ideal novel for our moment. It’s a workplace novella that feels more pointed and, ironically, more true to life than other contemporary examples, like Halle Butler’s dark office satire The New Me.
In fact, the novella actually reminded me of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, a code-switching state-of-the-nation film, which skewers office life satirically, with some troubling, dystopian turns. In the same way that Riley’s movie asks us to interrogate how our workplaces are dependent on surreal labor conditions, Oyamada pushes us to do the same in The Factory. In both Riley’s film and Oyamada’s novella, the conclusion, which involves people turning into animals, points to the ideological underpinnings of both of their projects: capitalist labour dehumanises workers.
At its core, The Factory is a meditation on what it means to perform rote labour under capitalism. The takeaways are just as disturbing as birds that spend their days obsessively gazing at a factory. You want them to fly away, but they’re seemingly unable, or unwilling, to do so — they’re chained to the ground, to a desk, or, perhaps even, to a cubicle.
Words by Megan Evershed.
For more information, and to buy The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, visit New Directions.
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