‘The Factory’ by Hiroko Oyamada paints a vivid portrait of the absurdity and meaninglessness of the modern workplace. Located in an ambiguous city in Japan, it follows three workers at an industrial factory. Initially each worker enthusiastically focuses on the specific task they’ve been assigned: one shreds paper, one proofreads documents, and another studies the moss growing all over the expansive grounds. But their lives slowly become governed by their work—days take on a strange logic and momentum, and little by little, the margins of reality seem to blur. Where does the factory end and the rest of the world begin?
“In Oyamada’s cautionary English-language debut, three recent hires at an inscrutable industrial factory find themselves bewildered by their strange new world.
“In times like these, a job’s a job,” Yoshiko thinks before signing on as a contractor who will shred documents all day in the basement of the eponymous factory. Her brother has taken a temp position proofreading the factory’s paperwork, a task so dizzying and incomprehensible that he can’t stop falling asleep at his desk. The factory itself is staggeringly large and byzantine; its bureaucracy is predictably opaque; and strange new species are mutating within its walls. This phenomenon we observe mostly through Furufue, a moss scientist hired to green-roof the factory complex, who, given neither direction nor deadline, is left to languish in an unstructured sinecure. But as the narration judders disorientingly across time and multiple perspectives, we realize that neither characters nor plot are the point of this book; rather, Oyamada is interested in crafting an atmosphere—somewhere between mind-numbingly mundane and mind-bendingly surreal—to explore and illuminate the depersonalizing nature of work in contemporary Japan. This results in a kind of lobotomized Kafkaesque quality: The novella’s protagonists are so disaffected that they don’t have any depth or agency; and after a century-plus of modernity and its discontents, the satire comes across as tame rather than trenchant. What’s new and interesting here is the ecological aspect of the critique: Oyamada deftly ties together the plights of human and nature, both becoming unrecognizable in an inflexible industrial economy. But with so few moments of intimacy or optimism, the novella is ultimately a document of deadpan despair, resigned to exaggerate the absurdities of the present rather than try to change them.
Tedium, meaninglessness, and alienation abound in this urgent but unsubtle fiction about the Japanese precariat.”
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