The Supremacy of Labor

“Hello, everybody. We’re thrilled to have you out here,” is the quintessential opening salvo workplaces fire at new hires. Time and time again, we have been welcomed in with open (HR) arms into a world that day by day slips into monotonous unease. It is this “monotonous unease” that characterizes the English-language debut of Hiroko Oyamada’s novel, “The Factory.”

Similar to the existential unease of Kafka’s “The Castle” or “In The Penal Colony,” Oyamada’s novel deals with the frustrating and sometimes unapproachable bureaucratic labyrinth. The novel’s choppy, yet uneventful everyday dreariness of “work” should connect well with the enlightened and unenlightened alike.

Confusion is a central tenet of the novel. Characters are continually confused: by the work, by the expectations that amount to keeping a seat warm, and by the vagueness of superiors. All three characters barely work at all. They suffer from the monotony imposed on them by the factory: a sprawling industrial complex with no visible end in sight of either labor, property, or production.

Importance is effectively nonexistent. What little weightiness could exist is isolated and discharged. The Shredder Team handles every document in need of shredding, except for classified or sensitive information; handled internally by each department. The team is still told not to take any documents home or make copies. Why would they, though, if nothing of importance goes through their hands?

The second of three main characters is hired to study moss around the factory, and install a green-roof on the factory. A job he is required to do alone, with no direction, outside help, or time table. Although he’s confused at first, he dutifully carries out his job for years. Without a vacation, much less a sick day.

The last of three main characters is my personal favorite: the proofreader. The monotony of which quickly engulfs him. Falling asleep for unknown periods at a time. No accountability. And worse of all, no progress:

“‘You won’t make any mistakes. You can’t.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You’ll see. We proof everything and leave notes, right? So, you do that, send it out, wait a while, and eventually the same thing comes back. Another version of the same document. Sometimes, though, it’s even worse than before. It just makes you ask yourself, what have I been doing? Someone somewhere is probably doing something with our edits, but we don’t even know who. Once in a while, you’ll fill a whole page with red marks, but it’s not like you’re really changing the content or anything. You’ll see what I mean. Sometimes you find a typo, a misspelling, or an unindented paragraph. Nothing you’ll find is all that major to begin with, so if you miss something, it’s no big deal.’ “You still need to correct everything, though,’ said the temp with the perm, looking right at us.”

It’s an acknowledgment of meaninglessness, coupled with an unwavering duty toward a meaningless process. What I do means nothing, but I still give it my all. It’s this absurd mentality that permeates the role of the worker.

Why are we working so hard for so little? Why do we care so much about something so minuscule? Why do we take so much pride in the scraps we are given?

Of the three employees, each one is cognizant of this absurdity. But like most people living in the shadow of a massive behemoth, they choose to sidestep the logical conclusion.

Just because you’re a cog in the machine doesn’t mean you’re a necessary piece, or that the machine is necessary. This is not a plea to focus on “necessary” jobs. It is an acknowledgement of what we’re all working toward: nothing. The job only ends when our body finally fuckin’ gives up. Yeah, another one bites the dust, but more importantly, another one always takes its place.

Failure to see the absurdity of our existence in this monstrosity of production is not just limited to the personal. It becomes communal. It builds; multiplies. It infects. “The Factory” acknowledges this expansion beyond the personal by glossing over the self, focusing on the factory itself as seen through its three main characters.

This absurdity even disrupts time. We find ourselves fifteen years into it still the same person we were in the beginning. Nothing has really changed except for our age; even then, it only means our physical retirement. It’s like we’re blinded to the cage we’ve been put into. We are the hamster running on the wheel, inside a cage. The wheel makes no difference. The cage is always there. We don’t even know why, or why we run. Yet, we run with due diligence. We run more and more each day; we’re excited and proud of it. So proud. But proud of what? What exactly is the point? To stay alive? Run faster and faster with no limit in sight?

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We always aim for more. A new raise, promotion, or project end up only being important because it’s another raise, promotion, or project. At the end, all we have to show for is a wrinkled document of company loyalty that we shakily point towards with a proud smile. We did that! We were there! We’re now ready to die in peace.

“The Factory” is a story of the small absurdities in this life cycle. It’s focus is on the supremacy of labor in spite of everything else. At least I have a job is the resounding motto of each character. The sprawling factory is the boundless influence of labor in our lives. So much that our daily thoughts, experiences, and interpersonal interactions are meaningless to the narrative unless they relate to labor in some manner. The narrative is disjointed only if you see the self as superior to the labor value. We’re all just cogs in the machine.