‘The Factory’ by Hiroko Oyamada (Review)

After a rather eventful stay in the fourteenth century, it’s time to return to the modern world now, where we’re slightly less likely to be hit by stray arrows.  However, don’t be deceived by the seemingly calmer atmosphere.  While everything may appear normal on the surface, there’s a lot going on that we’re not really aware of, and if we’re not careful, we might be sucked into staying here for longer than we intended.  Let’s take a brisk walk across the bridge, then, and, please, whatever you do – keep away from the local wildlife…

I enjoyed Hiroko Oyamada’s short, eerie novella The Hole last year, so I was very happy when I got a message from the local library saying that its predecessor in English, The Factory (again translated by David Boyd) was ready to be picked up – even if I had just posted a photo with all my #JanuaryInJapan choices…  This time around, we’re swapping the countryside for a more urban setting, but the two books are connected by an underlying sense that all is not as it seems.

The Factory is about, well, a factory.  It’s an enormous enterprise that dominates the region it’s located in, and anyone seeing it for the first time is bound to be impressed by the sheer scale of the place, and the various facilities available:

“The factory really has it all, doesn’t it?”  “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, teppanyaki.  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…”
p.41 (New Directions, 2019)

It’s a place that’s hard to get your head around, and if the reader can be a little lost at times, spare a thought for the poor souls that have to work there.

We’re introduced to the factory through the eyes of three new employees.  The first, Yoshiko Ushiyama, goes for an interview after a string of unsuccessful jobs elsewhere, somehow ending up employed as a document shredder.  Her brother, who was unexpectedly laid off from his role in IT, is persuaded by his girlfriend to take a temporary role as a document checker elsewhere in the factory.  Meanwhile, moss researcher Yoshio Furufue finds himself recommended for a position at the factory instigating a green-roofing project.  In alternating chapters, we follow the three new employees going about their day as they attempt to do their best in their new positions.

As you may have guessed, the factory is no ordinary place, and The Factory is no ordinary book.  Oyamada has crafted a decidedly, deliberately strange tale, designed to make the reader stop and think.  It often takes time to reacquaint ourselves with the characters each time there’s a new chapter, and the writer uses occasional time skips, often mid-paragraph, to trip up unwary readers.  We find ourselves wondering who’s speaking, to whom, and when.  The main protagonists are often confused about what’s going on, and that certainly spills over to the reader.

There’s also a rather sinister feel pervading the book, and even if nothing ever really happens, there’s always a sense it might.  This is perhaps most evident when it comes to the various fauna we’re introduced to in the factory grounds.  Quite apart from the massive coypus that inhabit the drainpipes of the complex (and the rumours of a strange lizard species inhabiting the laundry), there are the uncanny black birds that await you at every turn:

“There are tons of them, living by the river.  Every time I look, there’s more of them, too, as if the population’s doubling each year.  And they’re not the least bit afraid of people.  You can walk right up to them and they won’t fly away.” (p.49)

Each of the main characters is slightly perturbed by the colony of black birds, unable to fly, but always there in the corner of your eye.  There’s nothing overly dangerous about them, but the fact that they’re unidentifiable, and omnipresent, gives each of the workers more than a few uneasy moments.

‘Kafkaesque’ is a word that’s often overused in reviews, but it’s definitely apt when discussing The Factory.  I was reminded of the great man’s work by the labyrinthine nature of the factory and the lack of oversight, frequently asking myself:  Who’s in charge?  What does the factory actually make?  What’s the point of all the document checking, and shredding?  As is the case with Kafka, you’re only fooling yourself if you’re expecting clear answers.

There are also hints of Kafka in the way the three protagonists are sucked into the world of the factory, almost against their will.  None of them really want their job, and they don’t see much point in the tasks that await them there.  This is particularly true for Furufue, a respected researcher whose main job becomes organising moss hunts for employees’ children.  Yet somehow, despite their misgivings, they become a part of the factory ecosystem, absorbed into the working world.

And that, of course, is one of the main concepts behind The Factory, the way society expects us to work, even if we’re not that keen on the idea.  All three of the protagonists are pushed into working for the factory by peer pressure, family or colleagues, and although these jobs are only supposed to be interim positions, once you’re there, it’s hard to get out.  Furufue certainly has occasional moments of clarity:

My diet at the factory was definitely a step up from my student days, when my culinary life was pretty much limited to the school cafeteria and chain izakayas.  But I didn’t come here to get fat on the food.  I’m not walking around the factory to burn calories, either.  So why did I come here? (p.67)

It’s a question that proves surprisingly hard to answer.

While reading The Factory, I was constantly thinking about, and comparing Oyamada’s story to, another Japanese novel, namely Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such thing as an Easy Job (translated by Polly Barton).  Both books examine the very concept of work, why we do it and the effect it has on us, but from slightly different angles.  Tsumura’s novel focuses on one woman and her experiences in different jobs while searching for the right one.  By contrast, Oyamada looks at one workplace, and the different workers who end up there.  Where Tsumura is quirky and off-beat, Oyamada is quietly disturbing.  However, both writers suggest that there’s something slightly wrong with the way we’ve organised our society, and the massive importance work has taken on.  This examination of work for the sake of work seems to be a prominent theme in contemporary Japanese fiction, then – with good reason.

Not everyone has been overly taken with The Factory, but I found it an enjoyable and thought-provoking book, one that probably needs to be reread to be fully understood, and one that may defy complete interpretation.  It’s a story showing how the world of work dominates adult life, seeping into other areas of our lives and gently guiding us into places we’d much rather not go.  It can also be read as a warning to be very careful when making career choices.  You see, taking the path of least resistance today may mean you end up in fifteen years’ time wondering how on earth you got here…

4 thoughts on “‘The Factory’ by Hiroko Oyamada (Review)

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