Hiroko Oyamada’s award-winning debut novel, “The Factory,” measures out in terse detail an indictment of contemporary work culture. Set in modern Japan where the norms of underpay and overwork are well-known, the novella evokes the worst of the Silicon Valley-type tech campuses and asks the question: How can we find meaning if the meaningless directs our days?

The Factory, by Hiroko Oyamada, Translated by David Boyd.
128 pages

Told from three intertwining perspectives, Oyamada presents various aspects of work society. Despite being referred to constantly as “the factory,” nothing actually seems to be produced within the self-contained colossal complex in which the novel is set. It boasts a sprawling array of buildings complete with housing for upper level staff, a forest and a bridge that spans a vast stretch of water. The workers we are introduced to are not industrial ones, but are instead caught up in the corporate machinery of tedium.

Yoshiko Ushiyama, on her sixth job since graduating university, is a low-end contract worker, whose job at the Print Services Branch Office, located in the basement of one monolithic building requires her to feed unknown documents into a shredder all day.

Her brother represents the liminal employee. Recently a part of the salaried workforce, he was fired from his job as a systems analyst and reluctantly accepts a temporary position at the factory through the connections of his girlfriend, the sales rep and coordinator of a high-powered temp agency. His work, proofreading manuscripts, reduces him to a cubicled automaton, where he’s barely able to keep his eyes open.

Finally, Yoshio Furufue, a university researcher and bryologist specializing in moss, unwillingly becomes the factory’s corporate scientist. Tasked with “green-roofing” the vast complex, it’s an impossible job mismatched to his expertise, yet Furufue wears the coveted “silver badge” within the factory hierarchy as a high-level employee. He has an eternally useless existence, confined for 15 years by fuzzy parameters with neither accountability nor responsibility.

Through these characters, Oyamada has crafted a titanic ecosystem of modern work life, complete with the obligatory never-ending office dinner with co-workers and the emergence of strange new species conjured up by the meaningless, enervating patterns of the 9-to-5 existence.

“Compared to 2010, when I wrote ‘The Factory,’ work conditions are much worse now,” Oyamada tells The Japan Times through email. “Pay is even lower. The things I wanted to call attention to at the time have already become quite normal by now. In that sense, I’d be curious to know how people reading the book for the first time — or readers overseas — feel about what they’re reading.”

One thing you will feel is effort. The book puts the reader to work, pushing us out of complacent passivity into active critical thinking, thanks in part to a superb translation by David Boyd. Boyd admits his previous experience translating Oyamada’s short stories helped him craft the tools necessary to tackle the complexity of “The Factory.” Remaining true to Oyamada’s disorienting style, Boyd deliberately kept her formidable blocks of text, paragraphs that march on for pages, effectively mirroring the claustrophobic confinement of the characters.

He admits the book offered challenges during translation.

“The sentences don’t always connect. In key parts of the text, Oyamada changes subjects with practically every sentence,” he says. “It’s almost cinematic, moving quickly from one scene to the next. When you’re translating a novella like this, the things you understand are often connected to things you don’t or can’t.”

By the time I finished reading, Oyamada’s text had transmuted into something more than just a difficult read or a critique of modern society. The metaphor expands within itself into a kind of feedback loop: How do humans construct meaning? How does nature act or react to our constructions? What invests work with meaning? For Oyamada’s fans, myself included, the effort of reading becomes connected to the novel itself.

“In some of her other stories, Oyamada takes a more conventional approach,” says Boyd. “What you see in ‘The Factory’ is a deliberate decision to disorient as part of the whole experience. Behind her style, behind her approach to writing, Oyamada is addressing labor issues in a way that feels both immediate and universal. You can’t always see it, but there are multiple layers at play in this book.”

At just over 120 pages, it’s worth rereading to gain fresh insights as the book becomes more familiar, to revisit the strange animals populating the factory grounds, from majestic “factory shags” to fantastical washer lizards to oversized coypus, a type of semiaquatic rodent; a mysterious, middle-aged man, adorned in coypus fur and called the “Forest Pantser,” who waits for the opportunity to pull the pants off unsuspecting strangers. Caught in the unyielding mechanics of this time and place, chances for honest intimacy are missed — between co-workers, brother and sister, or two lonely singles who coincidentally meet on a bridge stretching toward infinity. Although bound constantly by realistic drudgery, the entire novel submerges into the surreal until its satisfyingly circular end. Like any great work of art, the meaning deepens with each subsequent perusal.

Oyamada’s greatest triumph may be in the joy she found in writing the book, launching her career as a writer and changing her own reality — as a temp worker at an automaker’s subsidiary — into a literary dream.

“When I was writing ‘The Factory’ I was motivated by a couple of things. There was the confusion I felt about the act of work and my anger at a society exploiting its youth. But no less than that (maybe even more than that), I enjoyed writing the book. I hope English readers will enjoy reading this work that I found so enjoyable to write.”

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