There’s no denying it: workers’ rights are hot right now. We’re taking it to The Man, we’re dismantling capitalism, one picket line at a time! So, it was a timely pick to read The Factory, a proletarian novella by Hiroko Oyamada. It was published in the original Japanese (工場) in 2013, and the English translation (by David Boyd) came out in 2019.

The Factory - Hiroko Oyamada - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Factory is short, just 116 pages – I knocked it over in a single sitting. It’s complex, though, with a strange structure that alternates between the perspectives of three central characters. Each of them work at “the factory”, doing McJobs that none of them really understand.

There’s Yoshiko Ushiyama, a recent liberal arts graduate who applies for a permanent position but instead gets offered a contract role, shredding documents.

Then there’s Yoshio Furufue, a former scholar and moss specialist. He’s hired as an executive, ostensibly to “green roof” the factory buildings, but he really has no idea what the heck he’s doing and no one at the factory seems to care if he just sits around collecting his huge salary and cataloguing a species of moss here and there.

Finally, there’s Yoshiko’s unnamed brother, who was fired from his permanent position as a systems engineer at a different company. His girlfriend was able to get him a temp job at the factory, proofreading documents – hardly living the dream. He frequently falls asleep at his desk.

There’s no specific timeline in The Factory, but there’s a “gotchya” moment for the reader towards the end that reveals the events of the novel have taken place over a span of about fifteen years. That matches the weird merging of the protagonists’ perspectives and *vibes*; they start off as distinct characters with their own motivations, but over the course of The Factory the boundaries between them – and between their physical form and the setting – blur and dissolve.

If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like something our buddy Franz Kafka would write, you’re not the only one. The Factory has been widely reviewed and analysed as a Kafkaesque novel. The strange imagery, the oppressive circumstances of the narrative, the nightmarish repetition – all the elements are there, all calibrated to leave you feeling deeply unsettled by the end.

The setting is the big draw of The Factory (for me, anyway). It sounds a lot like Amazon or one of the other big Silicon Valley conglomerates, but Oyamada doesn’t specify the company’s name or purpose at all. In fact, even the city in which it’s based is never described or named. The company’s grounds are completely self-sufficient, with living quarters, food and entertainment, everything workers could possibly need – one of the characters says it “has everything but a graveyard”.

Unsurprisingly, it seems that Oyamada drew on her own experiences working in a factory. Apparently, a temporary role in an automaker’s subsidiary really stoked her fires. She came at this novel, full guns blazing, to expose the powerlessness of the working class and the suffocation of class division cloaked in routine and efficiency. You don’t get a gold star for recognising The Factory as an allegory, the factory workers representing the working class on a broader scale; they are completely removed from (indeed, have no understanding of) their contributions in terms of production, and don’t benefit from the specific products of their labour at all.

The energy that Oyamada poured into the metaphor seems to have tapped her reserves when it comes to answering narrative questions, though. There are no firm answers, by the end of The Factory, about what it is or does, what happens to the workers, where the strange animals that inhabit the grounds came from, what the deal is with the Forest Pantser (my favourite character, you’ll have to read it to understand).

Reading The Factory really took me back to my undergrad days, studying sociology and arguing about Marxism in workshops. I went to bed that night dreaming of baguettes and the bourgeoisie. I’d recommend it to any fellow pinkos, and fans of Sayaka Murata or Yoko Ogawa.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Factory:

  • “It makes no sense, definitely not worth reading and I would never recommend it to anyone but that’s just my opinion, give it a read and find out yourself.” – Mark J. Morris
  • “The story was pretty dumb with what it had the main characters doing all day: proofreading pointless documents and shredding paper. Real exciting.” – Greg
  • “Essentially, three characters all begin work at “The Factory,” a massive, mysterious place where everything seems great at first, but quickly, all sorts of weird, unexplainable things begin to happen and the jobs, which never had any purpose, begin to consume the characters, destroying their creativity and individuality. Oh wait! That’s what supposedly happens to actual people in their real-world jobs! I get it now! This book is actually a brilliant expose of modern life and the soul-crushing monotony and conformity of the industrial-economic complex! Please – spare me. Oyamada is no Kafka and this book is a complete waste of time.” – Gerald O’Malley