‘The Factory’

 

Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd), New Directions, 116 pages, $13.95. The three central characters in Hiroko Oyamada’s enigmatic novel “The Factory” watch themselves being slowly and systematically buried alive by work. This translation — the first into English for Oyamada, who won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize — is smooth and plain-spoken, capturing the aridity and somnolence of life at a factory that has metastasized to the size of a town with museums, karaoke bars and apartments. What the company creates remains a mystery. The book focuses on a two men and a woman, all with monotonous jobs that leave them puzzled, passive and melancholy. Much has been made of Oyamada’s debt to Kafka, and of “The Factory” as an indictment of corporate life. There are passing remarks about automation and the routine indignities of office life, but the book feels too diffuse for satire, too lonely and questioning. The conventions of the novel, or the characters, 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 and climate change (as signified by the invasions of strange species). 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 to do with the real notion of work at hand.

NEW YORK TIMES