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Factory Blues

Hiroko Oyamada’s newly translated novel surveys the landscape of the modern workplace

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd. New Directions, 119 pages.

It’s not quite clear if the washer lizards are real. Washer lizards, in Hiroko Oyamada’s novel The Factory, appear only once, in a report written by a child. They are, supposedly, a species that have built a habitat in the cleaning facilities of the sprawling factory the novel describes, adapting entirely to life-near-washing-machines. The conditions of a washer lizard’s life are quite bleak; it’s constantly threatened by other washer lizards—adults hoard food from children—and by its environment. To drink water, it must climb down into a washing machine, but if a cycle begins, it might become tangled in clothes and drown. They live on lint, but young lizards often mistakenly eat dust in lint traps and die. Their lives have very small and specific perimeters. According to the report, “It will breathe its last without ever straying far from its birthplace, probably dying behind the machine where it nested or maybe inside the lint trap.”

In a way, the washer lizard is an obvious metaphor, a clear symbol that embodies the harshness, interdependency, and life-swallowing qualities of the factory complex Oyamada’s novel—first published in Japanese in 2013, and recently translated by David Boyd—describes. Washer lizards are the bottom-feeders, adapted but struggling in a highly competitive habitat, comparable to temporary workers who toil in basements at the factory. The factory is a behemoth, both the center of a city’s life and a city unto itself. Some employees live on its sprawling campus, which includes restaurants, bars, a museum, a transit system, warehouses, product testing sites, a forest, and a river. It bears some obvious similarities to the campuses of tech giants, like Googleplex or Apple Park. (The latter, with its artificial pond, imported trees and transparent-but-insular design, is probably the best point of comparison). But the factory has mythic proportions, with buildings on its map “too numerous to count,” more than a hundred cafeterias, and a river that empties directly into the sea; the campus seems to expand throughout the course of the novel. And the washer lizard is just a rumor in this vast sphere—it never appears in the flesh, and the scientist and proofreader who read the child’s report dismiss its existence. The interplay, in The Factory, between what we believe and what we don’t, what we see and what we can’t, becomes the fabric of this strange world.

There are many things, in the ever-expanding universe of the factory, that might be real or rumor: a figure called the Forest Pantser who is part fairytale monster, part metaphorical sexual harasser, and part worker, in uniform for his part like all other workers. The strange, unconfirmed practice of factory workers capturing and then releasing a species of black birds. A bridge that’s so long it can’t really be a bridge. There are other things that are notably absent: the factory’s supposed products, always left vague, never appear. Neither do executives or decision-makers or anyone with power beyond “middle management.”

The factory is a behemoth, both the center of a city’s life and a city unto itself.

What we do know: the factory is in Japan, somewhere in recent time. (Computers exist.) Three characters describe their day-to-day lives. Two are temporary workers, revealed eventually to be brother and sister. The brother, who was laid off from a job as a systems engineer, works as a proofreader and the sister shreds paper. Both their jobs are rote, tough on the body, and siloed into different small parts of the factory that are populated by a cast of recurring coworkers. Both of them don’t make full salaries. The brother especially expects eventually to leave, though they feel lucky to be employed at all (“Having work beats not having work,” he observes, tritely but probably correctly). The third character is a moss scientist, significantly higher on the factory’s fictional corporate food chain. He has been charged with “green-roofing” the factory, though he had no experience with that kind of work. He studies moss samples, leads a popular “moss hunt” for children, and lives on the factory grounds, while making no progress on his project. It becomes clear, eventually, that there is no expectation he will actually finish anything. Indeed, the fruits of all the characters’ labors become less and less clear throughout the course of the novel, leaving us wondering: what could possibly be the point of all of this? Much of the project of reading and rereading The Factory is attempting to decipher, along with the characters, a workplace that has no logic, or at least not a logic we get to see.

The Factory can be read almost in opposition to one of the more popular novels of the workplace released this year, The New Me by Halle Butler. The New Me is a novel that is fundamentally about the self, or a highly particular self: a young white woman named Millie who’s temping in Chicago and striving for permanent work, hoping that adding coconut oil to her hair will help her move up the totem pole, coming home to binge on TV, and internally raging against the conditions of her life. Described in The New Yorker as a “definitive work of millennial literature,” it is roughly two hundred pages of inner monologue, almost all Millie’s. The New Me is easy to inhale in a few gulps, easily quotable for its depressing and acerbic observations. I also found it disappointing as a workplace novel, especially a “definitive” one. I wanted more, often, than Millie’s litany of complaints, perhaps especially because her sense of precarity is somewhat imagined. (She takes money from her parents, and can afford gaps in temporary employment—her dreams of permanent jobs center around affording regular yoga). But also absent from The New Me is a sense of the workplace beyond Millie’s mind. The novel provides us with a single portrait of selfhood, eroded by the conditions of contemporary life to the point of parody.

This emphasis on the self is present in other recent office fiction. Indeed, it makes some sense, given that we are often told we are our jobs, and our jobs are our lives. In Ling Ma’s Severance, the portrait of the workplace is sharper and more textured than Butler’s. The narrator, Candace, works at a Bible production company that outsources labor to Asia. She is often coordinating big projects, dealing with tiny details, sending “professional” correspondence. In a way, she likes her job, or at least she likes being competent, though we can see some cracks. (At one point, she crushes a phone under her heel in frustration). When a functional apocalypse hits New York City, Candace continues going to work—because that’s simply what she does with her life, day in and day out. Though Severance touches on the global implications of the labor market—work outsourced, shady conditions, Candace’s deflection of responsibility—the novel remains fundamentally about and of Candace. Her inner life and personal history and humanity are the center of our understanding of the workplace, which is secondary, a vessel through which we come to better understand her.

Rather than a series of inner lives, The Factory reads more like a truncated, strange ecology.

The Factory is something different: a workplace novel that is not much interested in the self. It is not simply that the novel is told from three points of view. It’s more that the “I” is itself fluid, once even switching mid-chapter, in a jolt. There is no order to the appearance of the characters, and their relations feel both incidental and alien to each other. (A sister only learns that her brother is working in the factory by overhearing a conversation). The characters are, in fact, barely there. Mostly they are observers of factory life, naturalists or anthropologists in the landscape of their workplace. Rather than a series of inner lives, The Factory reads more like a truncated, strange ecology, one whose primary features are disorientation and incompleteness.

The moments of greatest subjectivity and supposed humanity—when the characters are about to reveal something to us, or when they intersect with each other—are often the least comprehensible. Nobody seems to understand each other; meals are often strained, with the liveliest details being relegated to descriptions of the food at hand. While drunk with her colleagues, one night, the proofreader says, “I started talking about my past, my struggles. It was my own voice, but it didn’t sound anything like me.” We don’t learn about her past or her struggles—it’s a false hint at a backstory, a code for the kind of thing we expect from our characters but don’t receive in this novel. Sometimes the characters seem alien to themselves, as when Furufue, the moss scientist, touches his face and notices that he has a beard. “I was stunned, but only for a fraction of a second,” he says. “It wasn’t anything, after all. Hair had been growing everywhere, on the backs of my hands, all over my body.”

Furufue has been working at the factory for fifteen years. The narrative timescales have been collapsed, making it seem to us as though he’d started around the same time as the temporary workers, when in fact he’d been there much longer. Briefly, he is stunned by reflecting upon the passage of more than a decade, during which time he has produced nothing tangible, despite working every day. There is a moment in which we are briefly oriented in his consciousness—his inability to recognize himself, or what he could possibly be doing in this place. But only very briefly, and then the novel moves away from him. In the factory, even as one of our narrators, he is only a blip—a cog in the metaphorical machine, or perhaps something more like a washer lizard, adapted to this strange habitat, barely real.