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Defector Reads A Book

It’s Time To Clock In And Talk About ‘The Factory’

Cover image: New Directions Publishing

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our September DRAB selection was Hiroko Oyamada’s novella The Factory, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Giri Nathan: Well, it’s a treat to be back eating tripe with my coworkers at the blog factory.

Barry Petchesky: I’ve been here (almost) 15 years, but I’ve found some cool mosses to show for it.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I thought it would be funny if we did this DRAB without using our names, and just left it to readers to figure out who’s talking. 

BP: It took me maybe five or six chapters to get a handle on who was who, or even that they were new chapters with new narrators. Clearly this was intentional, as were a whole host of textual choices to make the reader feel as disoriented as the narrators themselves.

GN: I went back through the book to see if the proofreading guy ever gets a name, and I have concluded that he does not, not even in the thoughts of his (named) sister! So I feel that only two out of three of the narrators getting a name really sets the tone for this book.

BP: And those two were named Yoshio and Yoshiko, very common names which would be the equivalent of John and Jane, perhaps. 

Kelsey McKinney: It felt like people were named only as revelations within another character’s chapter. But then when the proofreading guy popped up in his sister’s chapter, I only realized it was him because of his terrible girlfriend! It felt like it was important to remember every name, which for some (like Goto) did turn out to be true, I guess.

BP: Not even the birds got a species name. Can we talk about the birds, and the big reveal? Which certainly explained why the grade schooler had never seen a baby bird and why the only thing the factory lacked was a cemetery.

MA: Yeah, let’s talk about the birds. One thing I enjoyed about this was the contrast between the gleaming, austere, Google-like campus the book evoked and then this incredibly strange and messy ecosystem around it—mosses, rats, birds. Yoshiko Ushiyama, our paper shredder, transforms into a black bird right at this moment she “wasn’t thinking about anything at all, just feeding paper into the machine.” I saw this as a kind of parallel story to the washer lizard’s (which I was quite touched by), everyone evolving toward this grimmer state of dependency. 

KM: Wow, I love that, Maitreyi. I hadn’t really thought about how the jobs directly contribute to the transformation of the workers as a form of evolving. I was kind of thinking of them more as the only possible ending of this kind of work.

BP: One big question was, what does this factory make? And it seems the answer is birds. At first I thought the growing mass of birds were going to be a metaphor for some sort of ecological blowback. A few days removed I now think of them more as a metaphor for anonymity and for the sort of chained freedom experienced by factory workers. (With the washer lizards perhaps a more carceral version.) But I also think any metaphors here are not necessarily supposed to be neat and tidy one-to-ones.

KM: When I first finished the book, I felt really disappointed by the bird reveal at the end. I felt like there were all of these questions I had about how the birds were created and even smaller things in the book (like what all the men were doing on the bridge, why people were proof-reading, what the factory even makes, why the moss man was recruited) that were just left unresolved and unanswered. But the more I’ve sat with it, and thought about the ending, the more I feel like that is part of the disorientation goal. That these huge beloved companies hide everything. Of course we can’t have the answers. 

GN: I really loved that the only part of the book attempting to provide any kind of clear exposition was the kid’s animal binder, which we read straight through. And of course even that seems to have been purely imagined in parts, while also being unusually true in others. It reminded me of reading the Wildlife Fact-file as a kid. I tend to like when books break character and lapse into a totally different mode of writing for longer than feels comfortable.

BP: No love for the coypus among us, huh. 

KM: I had to google the coypus because I did not know what it was, and these guys are cute! I liked them. I really liked the detail about the child picking some unique moss off of one of the dead ones. That feels really interesting to me as a choice: to have the man brought in to study moss studying the production of moss by his transformed and dying colleagues lol. 

GN: I did not know them as coypus, but I do know what nutrias are, and I’m horrified by the idea of one big enough to play small forward in the NBA. And then also having to deal with its dead body.

BP: Moss guy had the clearest arc in this book, experiencing the (surprise!) passage of time and at the end, beginning to transform into … something. But it seems clear that he and Yoshiko are never leaving the factory. Is there hope for Unnamed Brother?

MA: The passage of time reveal was great; it hadn’t even crossed my mind that he’d begun at the factory well before the other two narrators.

BP: That certainly did evoke the relatable notion of doing a pointless and mindless job and the days and years running together and one day looking up to realize a whole chunk of your life has slipped away while you were busy working. A fantastic reveal. 

KM: So I did pick this up a little earlier, but only because I kept writing WHAT YEAR IS IT? in the margins because the chapters all had different levels of technology! Do y’all think he was an heir? This book is so short that it feels like no lines are throwaways. When Yoshiko is talking to the Captain about the workers’ color-coded jumpsuits, he tells her, “Silvers are the highest up. Executives or their heirs.” My ears perked right up, but then there was no reveal. 

GN: I took that to mean he’d been working there long enough he was now like, Chief Moss Officer, despite not having produced anything of “value” in 15 years, and also having his nominal job apparently contracted out to some other company in the meantime. Incredible career arc if you can get it.

MA: Moss guy, Furufue, is kind of special in this way—the other two narrators have totally insignificant, mind-numbing jobs, and his ends up being totally insignificant because it’s a hugely ambitious project that no one is supervising. The suspicion with which he approached what must be the one corporate staff bryologist job ever created was pretty funny to me. 

KM: It really upset me in the final chapter after the reveal that he had been there for 15 years, that he thinks to himself that he’s been working every day. This kind of dragging, impossible life of doing a job every single day and having just absolutely nothing to show for it is brutal. At least Yoshiko gets to see the papers shred!

BP: The proofreading and the shredding are just two ends of the same lifecycle, though. Ultimately their work, canceling each other out, amounts to just as much “nothing” as 15 years of pointless moss hunting. If there’s a moral here, it’s not far from being “lol nothing matters.” Hence the inevitable Kafka comparisons.

GN: Has anyone else worked a numbing temp job? I was a fact-checker for a while and was upset by how familiar some of the proofreader’s descriptions felt, with respect to sleepiness, futility of my contributions, and a sense of permanent impermanence. An article would come across my desk, and it would have flaws right down to the very premise of the piece, and I would check the facts and protest a little, and then it would basically run as submitted.

BP: Giri, we’re bloggers. We work really hard on a thing, then post it, then a day later it’s as if it never existed. We get it.

KM: This thing happens to me all the time where I have a really good idea for an article, and I am like, “Wow, I’m a genius. This is such a good idea I should google it to see if anyone else has already had it.” And then I google it and sure enough there is an article with the answer. But what’s upsetting is that the article is often WRITTEN BY ME. I have already had this thought and decided to write the article, reported it, written it, and just forgotten about it. So yes, I identify with the proofreader. 

BP: Kelsey, have you ever considered writing an article on washer lizards? They seem interesting.

KM: Hmmm. Lemme google and see. Seems like no. What I would like to write an article about is … the Forest Pantser. Can we discuss this?

GN: A man who tries to pull off people’s pants, but doesn’t try all that hard, and is easily deterred by suits. Is it lightly suggested that Furufue is the Forest Pantser??? 

KM: WHAT?

BP: I thought this for a second when they talked about his newly hairy body, since the Pantser was described as wearing a coypu mantle, but settled on Furufue’s transformation being into something perhaps mossier.

MA: Ah! I didn’t think of this! I thought the Forest Pantser predated him, but now I realize I don’t actually know how long Furufue had worked at the factory by the time of the moss hunt scene, where we first learn about the Pantser.

GN: Maybe it’s like a Batman thing where new people can inherit the mantle. Anyway there’s this baffling lead-off to a chapter: “The Forest Pantser dresses the part. Under a mantle of coypu fur, he wears a gray jumpsuit, an old design that no one wears anymore. His uniform is one the baggy side, a little too large for him. He tucks his pants into his black rubber boots. Age has made a smaller man of him.” And then we segue right into Furufue’s narration.

KM: It is confusing to me when exactly someone turns into a bird. Like presumably Furufue has been there for 15 years but is not a bird. How is the Forest Pantser still not a bird? Why isn’t he an animal yet! How did he get old! There was also a weird part in Furufue’s narration where he was talking about eating and he says “We’ve even got an eel restaurant that delivers anywhere. I’ve eaten broiled eel on rice in the middle of the forest,” which I guess could be evidence of him as Forest Pantser. 

MA: You know, I was possibly just hungry, but I did notice a lot of food in this book! It offers a rare point of connection in an otherwise alienating workplace—Furufue and Yoshiko have their lunch together toward the end; Yoshiko has these big fancy meals with her colleagues, and she only learns her brother is working at the factory when she eavesdrops on him at a café.

KM: I liked all of the food writing. People eat! It is an interesting structural choice that all people do in this book is work and eat. 

BP: They also eat a lot of organ meat. Eating, and perhaps specifically eating animal innards, is the most human activity that goes on at this factory. 

GN: It’s also definitely something a big-ass bird would do!

KM: The scene where Furufue’s noodles get cold because he is too busy competing in a rock-paper-scissors competition was very funny to me. 

MA: Also no one can shut up about all the damn restaurants at the factory! 

BP: Well, that felt realistic about starting a new job anywhere. Oh there are some great lunch places nearby. Also there are like a billion mysterious birds and coypus. Classic workplace stuff.

MA: Beyond food, how do the people in this workplace relate to each other? Our proofreader seems to be pretty fed up with his colleagues, but they didn’t seem too bad to me. 

GN: I think the proofreader is intent on separating himself—just a temporary temp, of course—from all these middle-aged forever-temps, lest he start becoming one. So maybe his insecurity explains his disgust.

MA: Yes, and I think there’s a gendered element to his resentment also? When he’s having a meal with his sister and his girlfriend, a full-time employee of the temp agency, he listens to his girlfriend describe a split between these bright and smart women who work as temps and then these ditzier women, and then says, “It sounds like most of them are just hopeless.” He also seems to really resent his girlfriend, who got him the job! I chuckled at this line: “Tossing her hair around like that made her look like an idiot. But this idiot turned out to be my sole lifeline.” 

GN: It’s great that the only person who accomplishes concrete work tasks in this book is the girlfriend who has this salaried job getting all these temps assigned to various companies, where they all presumably go on to do very intangible and weird things.

KM: The girlfriend sucks!!!!! I really liked when the shredders all went out for one (1) drinks night and then still continued to basically ignore each other all the time. It felt very realistic to me that there was this bare minimum team bonding while meanwhile there is a whole other group of people in the same room who are so distant from you they have their own shredder (unnecessary!). 

BP: I was a little surprised at how normal the coworkers mostly seemed to be? For a truly bizarre workplace they were all recognizable archetypes. “Glasses” never once introducing herself was pretty funny. I’ve definitely worked for years with people I recognize by sight but not by name. I do think on the whole it was more effective to populate this book with normal, logically thinking and acting people, rather than more surreal types. It helps the oddness of factory life never feel less odd to the reader when it still registers as odd to the characters. Except perhaps Goto, who always felt to me like he knew more than he was letting on.

MA: Right, I think that’s how an author gets the “dystopia” to work. You have to feel a little sting of recognition. And speaking of the sting! There’s so much equivocation in the narration, and from every character. They’re all a little wobbly when it comes to articulating what they want and what they like. I thought it landed really nicely toward the end, in a lovely (if delusional) passage where Yoshiko considers her relationship to work. “I want to work, and I’m lucky enough to be able to. Of course I’m grateful for that. How could I not be? Except, well, I don’t want to work. I really don’t. Life has nothing to do with work and work has no real bearing on life. I used to think they were connected, but now I can see there’s just no way.” 

GN: I’m reading this and also realizing that the narration leaves absolutely no space for their lives outside work, the stuff that is hypothetically getting squeezed out by all this work, that they would prefer to be doing. There’s not even really a hint of a hobby.

MA: Yes! Even the blood relationship that links two of our narrators—and they live together, too, don’t they?—doesn’t unfold outside of work. 

GN: That was almost a more electrifying reveal to me than turning into a bird to be honest. My brother, whom I live with, is my coworker!

KM: I also loved that reveal: the kind of jaded twist that your work (which is easy and you don’t even like) has sucked so much away from you that you don’t even know what your own brother/roommate is doing. The whole premise of this book seems to be that you have to work to have a life, but then your work literally consumes your whole being by turning you into a bird!!!!! 

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! October is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick soon.