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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Factory

Oyamada Hiroko

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To purchase The Factory

Title: The Factory
Author: Oyamada Hiroko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 116 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Factory - US
The Factory - UK
The Factory - Canada
  • Japanese title: 工場
  • Translated by David Boyd

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Our Assessment:

B : solid little novel of the anonymous modern mega-urban life- and work-place

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 10/2019 Julian Lucas
The Japan Times . 9/11/2019 Kris Kosaka
The NY Times . 18/12/2019 Parul Sehgal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/12/2019 Alison McCulloch
Publishers Weekly . 16/7/2019 Gabe Habash

  From the Reviews:
  • "Very little happens in The Factory, and Oyamada’s tendency to plot through the drifting accumulation of odd encounters -- strolls, moss hunts, co-worker dinners, the vanishing or sudden appearance of colleagues -- would have been more effective in a longer work. The characters, possibly by design, are regrettably indistinct. But the narcotized vision of an endlessly accommodating company town feels prescient in the era of "smart cities" chartered by Alphabet, Amazon, or Mohammed bin Salman" - Julian Lucas, Harper's

  • "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. (...) 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 ?" - Kris Kosaka, The Japan Times

  • "The voices, and attitudes, of the three are identical: puzzled, passive and melancholy. Only a sudden pronoun shift or small detail indicates a shift in perspective. It’s an alertness Oyamada inculcates in her reader. (...) David Boyd’s translation is smooth and plain-spoken, if occasionally marred by a jarring American phrase (.....) Her debut novel, published when she was 20, it bears some of the qualities of youth itself: It is truthful, indignant, evasive and, very much, still in progress." - Parul Sehgal, the New York Times

  • "Oyamada’s strangely chilling novella (.....) The purpose of the factory is as bewildering as the tasks of the people who spend their lives there." - Alison McCulloch, the New York Times Book Review

  • "Soon, time and the characters’ understanding of life beyond the factory begin to fog, and perhaps Oyamada’s greatest achievement is transferring this disorientation to the reader. (...) This nonpareil novel will leave readers reeling and beguiled." - Gabe Habash, Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Factory has three narrators, all new hires at an unnamed factory of enormous proportions -- dominating the local city and, in fact, practically a city in its own right, with a hundred cafeterias, "more restaurants than you can count", as well as: "a post office and a bank, a travel agency, a couple of bookstores", among much else. The three take turns recounting their experiences, first in adjusting to their new situations before soon finding that, despite being able to fill function -- do what is asked of them -- their tasks remain little more than an in every sense incomprehensible going-through-the-motions.
       Yoshiko Ushiyama has quit five companies since graduating, unable to stick it out as long as a year anywhere. She gets a contract position -- a slightly-better-than-temp job -- at the factory, in the paper-shredding department -- an impressively large-scale operation, like most in the factory. Unbeknownst to her, her thirty-year-old older brother, whom she lives with, also lands a job at the factory -- a true temp job however, and significant step down from his previous one as a systems engineer. He got this temp position thanks to his much more successful girlfriend, a sales rep and coordinator at a major temp agency itself; his job is in the Document Division, proofreading documents by hand. Finally, Yoshio Furufue is a university researcher who is hired to look into the green-roofing of the entire complex with moss -- his area of specialty --, forming the new, one-man Environmental Division Office or Green-Roof Research, complete with on-site housing which also doubles as his workspace.
       The novel at first rotates from character to character, as they describe their different experiences, of settling into this new and unusual environment and their jobs. Eventually there is increasing overlap, including the characters interacting and describing their encounters with each other from their different perspectives.
       The sheer extent of the factory, this world unto its own, is something they are repeatedly surprised by; as one of them is told: "The factory is a big place, bigger than you know" -- and it always remains that way. Both the purpose of the factory and their specific tasks baffle them as well. Furufue, in particular, keeps pointing out that they don't really need him, and that there would be much more efficient ways of going about greening the factory, and that anything he could do would mostly be pointless -- but the powers that be continue to encourage him to go on (and compensate him exceptionally well). The other two don't complain as obviously about their assigned tasks, but see them as similarly point- and fruitless: "It's meaningless work that comes with no real responsibility", the proofreader points out, completely baffled by the material that goes through his hands:

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's it making ? I thought I knew before, but once I started working here I realized I had no idea. What kind of a factory is this ?
       Amusingly too, as he was told when his duties were first described to him, the proofread documents eventually come back for another check -- and often then contain even more mistakes; "It makes you ask yourself, what have I been doing ?"
       Even shredding Yoshiko feels guilty about being paid for what she does -- as well as feeling in every way unfulfilled:
My job couldn't be any simpler. (Thinking about it, it's really insane that the factory pays me as much as they do. Why not automate the process ?) The more my thoughts wander the harder it gets -- everything feels so disconnected. Me an my work, me and the factory, me and society.
       This disconnect is also manifested in her relationship with her brother, with readers at first unaware that the two characters are related, much less live together, and even when there is some overlap and the two interact, both perspectives still feel very separate.
       The characters do engage with others, especially co-workers -- notably the unwavering Goto, who always has an answer and gives the characters the basic information and instructions they need, but never seems to be quite on the same page as them, cheerfully refusing to understand their concerns about their qualifications and duties at every turn -- but a fundamental disconnect remains; ultimately, each man and woman is an island here.
       Beyond the sheer magnitude and busy-ness of the factory, the characters come to notice the peculiarities of the on-site wildlife. For one, there are those ominously black birds -- ever more of them, it seems --, a kind which no one seems to be able to identify, with a young boy who writes a report on the factory fauna describing them as 'factory shags'. The boy's report reaches first Furufue and then the proofreading department; it also includes descriptions of the few other animals on site, including coypus and 'washer lizards'. These animal-elements in the factory ecosystem are a natural-but-unnatural element that comes increasingly to the fore as the novel comes to its conclusion.
       The Factory is a short novel, a mix of straightforward detail and then the bizarre-abrupt (including its conclusion). Perfectly realistic elements and events dominate, but Oyamada tosses in oddities that go far beyond the quirky, making for an effectively disturbing undertone to the narrative that occasionally strikingly rears up. The anomie of the modern mega-industrial workplace is nicely captured, and the characters and story ultimately quite nicely brought together -- if all rather abruptly; more building blocks of story along the way would have been welcome.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 October 2019

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The Factory: Reviews: Other books by Oyamada Hiroko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Oyamada Hiroko (小山田浩子) was born in 1983.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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