by Hiroko Oyamada
New Directions, 128pp., $13.95
The year was 1936, when an indefatigable tramp served as a working-class Virgil in guiding audiences through the hellscape of big business industry and assembly line madness. The tramp, of course, was Charlie Chaplin in his iconic film, Modern Times, which applied fool’s wisdom in overlaying its satire with calculated mania, circus-like antics, romantic aspirations, and a punch-drunk heart that refuses to throw in the towel. There is a visually brilliant scene in which the tramp gets swallowed up in the machine on which he’s working, a hapless Jonah churning within the gear-heavy belly of the industrial whale, and this image metaphorically underscored what Chaplin saw as the threats of dehumanization confronting “modern man.”
Fast forward to contemporary society, in which a sprawling factory, a city unto itself, is regulating, ordering and arranging its brave new world one rote directive after the next. It’s easy to imagine an emaciated Kafka stooped over one of the desks, half-obscured behind a tower of documents, staring out bleary-eyed at the ledge of a window where black birds are gathering. Across from him a nerve-bitten Nietzche, paces, furiously smoking a cigarette, and refashioning his notions of the abyss to fit the conditions in which he finds himself atrophying. The abyss, now an omnipotent complex, an unnamable morass with a bottomless capacity for soul-feeding. People are no longer staring into the abyss, they are wearing it, breathing it, speaking it, and perpetuating its slow-drip filtration to the staccato of the walking dreamless dead. And while Sartre might be hiding out in the basement decrying — Hell is other people — some asthmatic clerk on the fifth floor counters by scrawling on the wall in red marker: Purgatory is the void manifest as something you clock into and out of. That being said, thousands are employed here, including the three whose lives are chronicled in Hiroko Oyamada’s mordant fable, The Factory.
Born in Hiroshima, Oyamada’s award-winning debut novel was inspired by her experiences working as a temp for an automaker’s subsidiary. Set in modern Japan, The Factory presents three characters — two Ushiyama’s (one female, one male), and Furufue — each with a job whose side-effects include toxic catatonia and existential vacuousness. The female Ushiyama, an acerbic introvert, is part of the Shredder Squad, whose sole function is to feed documents into paper shredders all day long. Furufue is asked to canvas the grounds of the factory and examine and classify its moss, with some vague and unrealistic ambition of a green-roofing project purported by his bosses as the impetus behind his daily wanderings. The male Ushiyama is boxed in a cubicle where he proofreads material that leaves him confounded, “corporate profiles, operating manuals, booklets for children, recipes, texts on everything from science to history . . . Who wrote this stuff? For what audience? To what end? Why does it need to be proofread at all? If these are all factory documents, what the hell is the factory?”
What the factory produces, and why, are secondary to its efficiency, scope and omnipresence, a self-regulated world — replete with restaurants, hotels, apartment complexes, super markets, book stores, gas station, bank, bowling alley, fishing center, and countless other civic and recreational options — where all your needs can be met, and your soul can be checked at the door because its participation won’t be required. Think the rigged environment of The Truman Show, except no one is the star and there is no viewing audience. And, as one character ominously notes, “No matter where you are in this city . . . you’re always walled in by the mountains. But the factory had nothing around it. Or rather, it was as if it were surrounded by something other than the mountains. Something large, something more distant.”
There is a freighted and benumbing neutrality to the way in which time and lives play out within the confines of the factory, and Oyamada’s style, a beat-keeping opiate metronome, parallels this malaise. In alternating between the three storylines, it is hard to distinguish if hours have passed, days, years, as time is slow-chewed in large, undifferentiated chunks, and this hazy melding also holds true for conversations between characters. Blocks of dialogue, with no separation or line breaks, generate a textual stereo effect, with voices blending, interweaving and overlapping, and subordinating the individual register to a chorus by proxy. A subtly wonderful example is this is when the female Ushiyama finds herself invisibly sandwiched between her brother’s and brother’s girlfriend’s comments: “Then she looked at my brother and asked, ‘She’s a temp, right?’ I’m right here. ‘Contract worker,’ he said, drinking his tea.”
The three factory workers, in dealing with their own respective struggles related to their “dead-end” jobs, hope to find, if not some semblance of meaningfulness, then at least a better understanding of the purgatory which imperils through monotony: “It was raining, but the basement was the same as ever. Always the same temperature, the same humidity. A muffled, manmade air.”
One of The Factory’s cryptic subplots involves the animals found exclusively on the grounds of the factory, or within its facilities. Grayback coypus (kin to spiny rats, or beavers), washer lizards (tiny lizards who make habitats out of the factory’s washing machines), and factory shags, similar to cormorants, black-feathered birds that can “fly as far as sixty-five feet, typically hovering just above the river, but they do not appear to be capable of flying long distances.” The significance of these creatures, and their place within the Delphic scheme of Oyamada’s universe, endows the narrative with fabulistic intrigue. And therein lies the disquieting beauty of The Factory, which balances the gremlins of inertia and the malignantly mundane, against understated mysticism, while making sure you can hear its human heartbeat above the deafening hum of industry.