There’s a scene in The Golden Girls (hear me out) where the sardonic Dorothy, teaching a professional development class, encounters a bunch of adult slackers, save one: a Mr. Tanaka. He tells her that he’s done all the work assigned and an extra credit project to boot. “We’re never going to beat you people, are we?” she asks wryly.
That “you people” speaks to an entrenched American idea: The other is always different and weird. And one of the ways in which the Japanese are different and weird is their work ethic. The 1980s saw the inscrutable foreigner with his secret allegiance to the emperor evolve into the company man with an obsessive allegiance to work.
Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory gives the lie to the idea that the Americans and the Japanese are so different when it comes to our relationship with our jobs. It’s a workplace satire that will make a lot of sense to American readers.
The Factory was published in Japan in 2013, when Oyamada was only 20 years old. The slender novel—which only recently appeared here, in a translation by David Boyd—draws on the author’s experience as a temp, cataloging the absurdities of corporate life with an anthropological eye.
There are three narrators: Yoshiko, Furufue, and a man never named. All three work at the titular factory. Yoshiko studied linguistics and has bounced between jobs since university; her job at the factory is to shred papers. Furufue is a bryologist—a botanist who studies mosses—hired by the factory to oversee a green roof initiative. The unnamed third narrator is a systems engineer who, dismissed from his previous job, secures a temp assignment at the factory proofreading documents.
Each is tasked with labor that is fundamentally meaningless. “I’m not even operating the shredder,” Yoshiko comes to realize. “I’m only assisting it.” Before Furufue can begin work on installing green roofs on the factory buildings, he is asked to undertake a census of the mosses growing on the extensive grounds of the factory complex; this takes him 15 years. The proofreader marks up documents that make little sense, a matter so mind-numbing that he falls asleep at his desk. Still, as he points out, “I was just happy to have a place to work, a place to go every day.”
The factory is a world of its own, as an HR functionary explains:
Apartment complexes, supermarkets, a bowling alley, karaoke. All kinds of entertainment, even a fishing center. We have a hotel and more restaurants than you can count. I’m not talking about employee cafeterias, either. You can have soba, steak, ramen, fried chicken, fast food. In the hotel, we’ve got French, Italian, sushi, teppan-yaki. We have a post office and a bank, a travel agency, a couple of bookstores, an optometrist, a barber, an electronics store, a gas station....
This both feels impossible and like it could be describing a real corporate compound in Mountain View. That tension between fantasy and reality is present throughout the book. For example, we have no idea what it is the factory makes, but it’s so hard to answer what’s being done at most office parks that the question seems beside the point. Perhaps the book isn’t satire, really; even in its most over-the-top moments it is telling it straight.
And like all workplace novels, The Factory underscores the folly of how so many of us spend our days. Work life’s odd rituals and petty grievances are rich fodder, and Oyamada has a number of details—the cubicle neighbor whose name you never actually learn, the morale-building family day activity—that will make you chuckle with recognition. Yes, the factory is a destabilizing place, so labyrinthine it’s hard to navigate, with arcane rules. But isn’t that every large office?
Writers tackle this human material because it’s the easiest way to get at the very big targets—capitalism, society, order. And it’s here that Oyamada has the most fun. Beyond the quotidian oddities, there are strange things afoot at the factory. There are many birds about, and signs warning not to open the windows lest they get inside. An old man lurks in the woods, accosting people to ... pull their pants down. “Whenever his would-be victims fought back or resisted, he retreated into the trees. Of course, everyone puts up some kind of fight, so he hadn’t actually removed anyone’s pants.” While the birds seem menacing, the so-called Forest Pantser is mostly ridiculous. Maybe he’s capitalism in a nutshell: the possibility that we will be humbled and demeaned is always there.
The Forest Pantser threatens to ruin a family day outing that Furufue is overseeing, but that ends up taking a still stranger turn when one of the participating children comes across the dead body of a coypu (a kind of rat also known as the nutria). “The animal might have been six feet long, but coypus shouldn’t be anywhere near that size,” Oyamada writes. “Maybe I was imagining things.”
The text feels as disorienting as the place it describes. Exchanges of dialogue are rendered in a single chunky paragraph; a chapter might move back and forth in time with no cue that it’s doing so; the reader might be offered the end of an anecdote, then have to read on to find its beginning. These are clever tactics, a match of form and subject all the more impressive given this is a first novel.
I so respect Oyamada’s book that I can’t ruin it for the reader. I’ll say only that at its conclusion, The Factory climbs into a register probably best described as magical (unless, as Furufue worries above, each of our narrators is only “imagining things”). There are readers who will hate this: I think it’s clear throughout that this turn is inevitable—not its specifics, which are surprising, but its tone. It’s horrific and scary, while at the same time affirming and beautiful.
“I don’t want to work. I really don’t,” Yoshiko tells us. “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 see there’s just no way.” I don’t know whether she’s right or not. I suppose it depends on where you work.