A graphic of a disillusioned woman with a warped office building over her face on a background of concentric circles
Richard Vergez

The Parasitic Workplace

Two recent novels depict modern labor as a hallucinogenic hall of mirrors.

According to a lushly animated Chobani ad from last year, the future of work is agrarian and cutting-edge, folksy and modern—WWOOF meets Wakanda, perhaps. The commercial pictures a world in which farming retains a familial, salt-of-the-earth vibe despite the existence of robots so prehensile they can pick fruit. “A business is only as good as its people,” a farmer narrates as workers gather around a peculiar spread of bread, tomato soup, and a heaping bowl of yogurt, and a drone drops off a carton of oat milk. The ad may be set on a future farm and designed to peddle dairy products, but its pastoral setting and utopian veneer riff on the pitches of many companies seeking to present a change to workplace scenery as an upgrade in quality of life.

During the pandemic, predicting “the future of work” has become a cottage industry among economists and marketers alike. Though the future is likely to bring widespread hardships for many—whether via stagnant wages or reduced quality of work—forecasters enthusiastically tout the ways that technologies such as “wellness pods” and the metaverse will transform (office) working life. Two recent dystopian novels offer more sobering perspectives on the trajectory of labor. In surreal, tactile, and often funny prose, Olga Ravn’s The Employees and Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory present the workplace as a hallucinogenic hall of mirrors, a crucible where our sense of self warps and dissolves. Emphasizing mood over motion, the books channel the stifling torpor of modern labor, casting work as disorienting and suffocating.

The Employees takes place on the Six Thousand Ship, a 22nd-century spacecraft orbiting the planet New Discovery. The ship’s staff consists of unnamed humans and androids whose roles center on the maintenance of “the objects,” mysterious artifacts found in a valley on New Discovery. When the objects begin exerting a strange power over the crew—changing their attitudes toward one another and their duties—the workers are interviewed about the shift in morale. (The genesis of The Employees is a 2018 art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund called Consumed Future Spewed Up as Present; Ravn, a Danish poet, initially was commissioned to write fictional descriptions of Hestelund’s leather and marble works but found herself writing related narratives, some of which were for objects that didn’t exist.) The resulting statements, numbered and sequenced out of order, make up the bulk of the book, which is arranged as a fragmentary bureaucratic report.

Ravn uses the statements to sketch out working life on the ship and capture the agitation of the crew after it has started interacting with the objects. Reproducing the particular babble unique to workplace small talk, Ravn presents the employees as nervous chatterboxes who fill the room with whatever comes to mind: their love of shopping, crushes, cookies. In every statement, Ravn excises the interviewers’ questions and reactions, omissions that make the transcripts feel more like confessions than conversations. “You want to know why I like the incinerator?” asks the ship’s funeral director. “It’s the smell of burnt matter, it reminds me of mealtimes at home. The smell of meat and soil and blood.” Life on the Six Thousand Ship affects every employee differently, but robot and human alike sound both unhinged and detached, from their work and from themselves.

The Employees fails to weave this ambient discontent into compelling storytelling despite its hints at social commentary. The gaze of the ship’s management, though built into the novel’s structure, lacks narrative weight. Management is so amorphous that the workers’ perspectives feel arbitrary and ungrounded. And the hierarchy of the ship is so ill-defined that even when mutiny brews, the stakes of the conflict remain vague. The elliptical writing doesn’t help either. Ravn’s denuded prose, though elegant, is short on world building. The book’s repetitive formatting, in turn, muffles the plot and obscures details as basic as whether workers are paid or if they have bills and debts. Empathizing with their plight is hard when their jobs are pure abstractions.

The interactions between the employees and the objects yield the clearest insights about the state of labor on the ship. From Statement 042: “When our orbit around New Discovery brings us into the right position, the sun strikes the panorama room, filling it with warm and shimmering light, like luminous water. The big object then radiates from its place in the middle of the room. The fragrant liquid flows from every groove.” The object seems to scramble the speaker’s senses even as they speak about it with intimacy, a microcosm of the dissociation coursing through the staff as a whole. The workers of the Six Thousand Ship are gainfully employed, but their jobs leave them disoriented. The objects offer slight refuge, opening tiny, psychedelic portals to places unknown. But each trip seems to end where it began: at work.

Where Ravn conceives of work as a sterile prison, Hiroko Oyamada depicts it as a spuming biome. She presents the immense workplace of her book’s titular factory as a material koan, reconfiguring its dimensions anytime it begins to feel graspable. Absurdly, the factory contains forests, a river, 24-hour bus service, dorms, and its own fauna, some of which might be unreal. Even the people familiar with its reach seem oblivious to its size. “There are all kinds of other food options around the factory,” a middle manager tells new hires during an orientation hike. “We have nearly a hundred cafeterias, and a decent number of restaurants, too. If you want, mark your map as we go,” he says. In casting the most mundane workplace details and interactions as abstruse and dreamlike, Oyamada makes work feel inescapable.

The factory’s rhizomatic influence is particularly evident in the haphazard way it hires. Yoshio Furufue, a moss expert brought on to green-roof the factory, doesn’t even get interviewed for the position; he shows up to learn about the job and suddenly he works there. His recruitment is so seamless that it feels like he was already an employee. Another worker, Yoshiko Ushiyama, applies for a permanent position but is given a temp gig instead, one in which she’d be shredding documents up to seven and a half hours a day. Yoshiko is unable to tell whether the offer is better or worse, but she quickly resigns herself to her fate. “A job’s a job,” she thinks as she accepts the role. The discussion is emphatically not a negotiation; the factory acts and the world moves. The novel brims with these tiny, tense moments, highlighting the ways in which even fleeting aspects of labor are weighted and exhausting.

As Yoshio, Yoshiko, and her brother—a former employee of the factory who is rehired as a proofreader—try to get their bearings, the ground continually shifts. Oyamada uses scale shrewdly, pirouetting from granular descriptions of the workers’ tasks to panoramic views of the seemingly ever-growing factory. In one scene, Yoshiko’s usually nap-prone brother gets agitated as he contemplates his employer’s opacity: “Corporate profiles, operating manuals, booklets for children, 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?” The factory is inscrutable yet material, its very scale deflating workers’ sense of worth. Yoshiko’s brother sees no horizon to his work, and, by extension, to his life. If nothing he does matters to the company or to customers, why should it matter to him?

Oyamada’s playful, jerky prose and brisk plotting keep the book buoyant despite its bleak air. Where Ravn snuffs out all the activity of a workplace, reducing it to an employer’s authoritative gaze and workers’ response, Oyamada ups the entropy: A renegade employee and creep known as the Forest Pantser lurks in the woods; the middle manager who interviews Yoshio and Yoshiko shows up to their workspaces, his duties a mystery to all; a hysterical document meticulously detailing the factory wildlife appears in a proofreading queue.

The Factory was released in the U.S. shortly before the pandemic started, and The Employees earlier this year. Both were written before the pandemic and sidestep not just the anxieties of the past couple of years but also the preoccupations that many contemporary office novels have with company culture or career mobility. Both question the human costs of work, zooming in on the affects—despondence, alienation, indifference—that businesses produce alongside goods and services. Oyamada, especially, illustrates how multifaceted working life often is. In capturing the frictions between what jobs purport to be and what they are, The Factory offers a layered portrait of work that’s attuned to both employer power and the miasmic effect that jobs can have on our lives. Oyamada’s ecological interpretation of labor—an interdependent web of strangers, siblings, animals, and nature—feels especially suited to a future that will be precarious for workers as well as the environment. In her fantastical, unsparing world, life is what the factory makes of it.

By Hiroko Oyamada

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