In this English-language debut of the winner of Japan's Shincho Prize for New Writers, three alternating first-person narrators create a vivid—if sometimes surreal—portrait of the absurdity and meaninglessness of modern life inside a sprawling factory that is difficult to differentiate from the world.
Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory gives the lie to the idea that the Americans and the Japanese are so different when it comes to our relationship with our jobs. It’s a workplace satire that will make a lot of sense to American readers ... [The]t tension between fantasy and reality is present throughout the book...Perhaps the book isn’t satire, really; even in its most over-the-top moments it is telling it straight. And like all workplace novels, The Factory underscores the folly of how so many of us spend our days. Work life’s odd rituals and petty grievances are rich fodder, and Oyamada has a number of details...that will make you chuckle with recognition ... The text feels as disorienting as the place it describes. Exchanges of dialogue are rendered in a single chunky paragraph; a chapter might move back and forth in time with no cue that it’s doing so; the reader might be offered the end of an anecdote, then have to read on to find its beginning. These are clever tactics, a match of form and subject all the more impressive given this is a first novel ... I so respect Oyamada’s book that I can’t ruin it for the reader. I’ll say only that at its conclusion, The Factory climbs into a register probably best described as magical ... There are readers who will hate this: I think it’s clear throughout that this turn is inevitable—not its specifics, which are surprising, but its tone. It’s horrific and scary, while at the same time affirming and beautiful.
... enigmatic ... 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. She is fond of jump cuts and scenes that dissolve mid-paragraph and flow into the next without so much as a line break. A pleasant vertigo sets in. Objects have a way of suddenly appearing in the hands of characters. Faces become increasingly vivid and grotesque. Nothing feels fixed; everything in the book might be a hallucination. Food is the only reality and comfort ... David Boyd’s translation is smooth and plain-spoken, if occasionally marred by a jarring American phrase. It captures the aridity and somnolence of life at the factory ... truthful, indignant, evasive and, very much, still in progress ... The proofreader and moss expert are thinly, indifferently drawn. Only Yoshiko, with her harsh, unpredictable edge, has the charisma of a fully imagined character. Subsidiary plot points and characters are summoned up only to be forgotten. The story and central ideas still need time to ripen and connect; they remain merely suggestive, slightly unsure, a little garbled, like Yoshiko’s own reasoning ... the book feels too diffuse for satire, too lonely and questioning. The conventions of the novel, or the character, seem less interesting to Oyamada than mapping a particular emotional state: the intersection of numbness and fear that is induced by the company and all it seems to represent about precarity, alienation, climate change. The questions the characters finally ask of themselves — Why am I here? What role do I play? — have nothing to do with their jobs and everything, we learn, to do with the real notion of work at hand.
... at first glance it could be off-putting. Lines of thought change without warning. Character dialogue proceeds without the usual paragraph breaks. And when you least expect it, the scene concludes and you find yourself in another scene, mid-action, sometimes mid-conversation. The Factory is disorienting; reading it makes one feel trapped in a maze, where every turn leads down another endless corridor of blank walls until those walls give and you’re suddenly somewhere else. The metaphor is apt for a satire about workplace bureaucracy ... At its core, The Factory is an indictment of capitalism: the way it uses us, the ways it fails us, the way it hurts us. It’s a mirror to our own world, but a distorted one. Indeed, much can be said about Oyamada’s skill at world building, from the idiosyncratic details of the factory to the structure of the book itself when we come to question how long these characters have been in the factory and how much time has passed, suggesting the factory is inescapable. She creates not so much a labyrinth but an entire ridiculous, claustrophobic and sinister world.