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…