The evening I received a copy of Weasels in the Attic, I heard noises in my attic. I told my wife it was probably a squirrel. I knew it was not a squirrel. “Listen, when you think about buying a house, give it some real thought, okay?” says Saiki, a fortysomething man in Hiroko Oyamada’s novel. “Once the weasels show up, you’re done for.”
The noises—a tentative scraping, followed by a dedicated digging—woke us up. They began in the ceiling directly over our heads before scurrying to the wall, which I began smacking. The intruder was chastened but soon resumed its efforts. I kept up the smacking every few minutes, with increasing force but the same result. We worried the creature was trying to burrow through the drywall. After a reprieve of several minutes, long enough for us to fall back asleep, the scratching grew more insistent. It seemed closer to the far side of the wall, which runs along a hallway. After a minute the timbre of the sound suddenly changed, as if some resistance had been cleared. In a panic I grabbed the item closest at hand: Oyamada’s slim paperback. I burst through the bedroom door to see a gigantic rat sticking its head through a gnawed-open hole in the wall. I screamed (shrieked might be more precise) and, gripping the book like a mallet, braced for a confrontation. When I flipped the light switch, however, the rat’s head reconfigured itself into the small globe that lights the hallway. A sconce.
Oyamada, who was born in 1983, has said that her first novel, The Factory, was inspired by such a momentary hallucination. She was working as a temp at a large car factory near Hiroshima, where she was born and still lives. One day, when she glanced up from her desk she saw, by the printing station, a woman holding a giant black bird. Oyamada replays the scene on the final page of the book: “She had a tight grip on its wings, but it wasn’t trying to fly away. It was definitely alive, surveying its surroundings.” In the novel, the woman, holding the bird in front of her, walks out of the office without comment. In reality, Oyamada realized that the woman was not holding a bird at all but some printer component—a toner cartridge, perhaps. Oyamada quit and wrote The Factory, choosing to spend her days in the hallucinated reality rather than the actual one. That novel and the two that followed—The Hole and Weasels in the Attic—vibrate with such images, which seem to flicker between mirage and deadpan realism, and lurk in the imagination like a haunting.
An exterminator caught the rat in our attic, we sealed every minute gap in the roof we could find, and that (so far) has been the end of it. In Weasels in the Attic, Saiki tries the same approach without success. After quickly capturing several weasels, the exterminator tells him that it would be a lot cheaper if he bought and tended his own traps. For months Saiki’s traps fill almost as soon as he sets them. Each time, he drives his captive fifteen miles away into the mountains and releases it from its cage. But the weasels keep coming. They are a considerable nuisance, and not just because of the noises and the bother of emptying the traps. There is also the stench (“Let me tell you, weasel crap stinks like hell”), the mess (they construct their dens out of chewed-up insulation and clumps of fur), and the fleas they attract. Saiki’s wife develops an allergic reaction that causes her arms to swell and turn bright red.
“But all you’ve got to do is find the hole, right?” asks Saiki’s old childhood friend, the novel’s narrator.
That’s impossible, Saiki explains. His house, in a remote countryside, is old and riddled with gaps and crevices. “When you think about it,” writes Oyamada, “Japanese homes are full of holes.” But for some reason the weasels ignore Saiki’s neighbors.
Over dinner at Saiki’s house, a grotesquely rich boar stew, the narrator’s wife recalls that during her childhood, her parents also had a weasel problem. The infestation got so bad that a putrid liquid began dripping from the attic. She too developed a rash, all over her body. Her father and grandfather set a trap and soon caught one—an adult female. “Great,” announced her grandmother. “We got one of the parents.” But the weasel didn’t look like an adult. It was very cute: covered in golden fur, with little ears, a flat snout, and tiny legs that wriggled about in the cage. She wanted to keep it as a pet.
Her parents told her to go play while they released the weasel into the wild. But she refused to leave its side. She describes watching in horror as her grandparents filled a garbage can with water and submerged the cage. The weasel, she recalls, made a horrible sound, unlike any she has heard since, a series of piercing shrieks. The grandmother explained that this was the ideal outcome. The shrieking of the mother weasel sends a message to the rest of her family: “This house is dangerous…Don’t stay here or they’ll drown you…Leave and don’t come back… Goodbye.”
It’s a good thing we got the mother, said the grandmother. Father weasels grow belligerent. Babies scream for help. Nothing, said the grandmother, is nearly as effective as the death agony of a mother weasel: “The mother’s the best.”
This is a novel, in case it wasn’t already clear, about the decision to have children.
Oyamada’s novels, translated by David Boyd into impassive and frictionless English, inhabit the borderlands between fantasy and reality, an uncanny landscape disrupted by surprises that can be played as easily for comedy as for horror. With each novel Oyamada has migrated in the direction of realism, though her advances have been subtle. The Factory is set entirely within a facility the size of a city, or even a nation-state: “A world of its own.” Employees enjoy the use of apartment complexes, supermarkets, bookstores, karaoke bars, a bowling alley, a fishing center, a hotel, a post office, a bank, a travel agency (but who would dream of leaving?), a shrine, and a museum exhibiting the art of factory employees (“It’s definitely worth a look,” says a proud supervisor). The campus has only four entrances (north, south, east, and west), and it is bisected by a river too wide to see across. When asked to describe the difference between the two factory zones, an employee says: “Everything over there is more, uh, physical. The buildings here are so metaphysical.” Metaphysical to the point of theoretical: the factory’s product is inscrutable, to its employees and to the reader, and ultimately irrelevant. A rigid but seemingly arbitrary secrecy settles over the campus. “It’s best if you’re careful with what you say to people outside the factory,” says the supervisor. “You never know who’s watching. Be sure to obey the rules.”
The novel follows three new hires, all of them about thirty, who were at professional dead ends before they found their way to the factory. Or did the factory find them? None of the characters actively pursued their positions but were pressured to apply by a brother, a girlfriend, an adviser. A recently fired “systems engineer” is hired as a copyeditor for corporate documents. A liberal arts major who has never held a job for longer than a year accepts an offer to join the Shredder Squad, feeding documents into a paper shredder for seven hours a day. A taxonomist of moss is asked to install green roofs on the factory’s buildings.
The new employees don’t fully understand why they’ve accepted these jobs or, for that matter, what they do every day. The shredder spends most of the novel dining with her colleagues at the factory’s restaurants and exploring the grounds. The papers reviewed by the copyeditor are banal and increasingly incomprehensible. “There’s no reason to think anyone even sees the documents once I’ve checked them,” he says. “I have no clue if I’m doing my job correctly.” Sometimes the documents return to his desk unchanged; sometimes they have acquired additional errors.
The moss biologist tries to explain to anyone who will listen that while he’s an expert on moss, he doesn’t know the first thing about green roofs. Nobody cares. “Figure it out as you go,” a supervisor tells him. “We understand that it could take months, years. Don’t worry about that.” So he stops worrying and stops working. Ultimately his only obligation is to lead the families of factory workers on an annual Moss Hunt, during which they tour the property’s “unsettlingly dark” forest, identifying species of moss. “What I want to know is why I’m here,” he asks in exasperation. “If they don’t need me, then why am I here?” It is tempting to extend the metaphor of Oyamada’s factory to all of modern industrialized society. What kind of factory have we built? And what exactly are we making?
The similarities between the trials of Oyamada’s characters are not a flaw of the novel but its driving conceit, one she emphasizes through a delicate formalistic choreography. The three narratives unfold in alternating chapters, but the chapters are unlabeled, distinguished only by page breaks. The characters are rarely named and their circumstances so alike that pages can pass before it is clear which character we’re reading about.
As their identities erode, so does their work: technical documents reviewed by the copyeditor disintegrate, merging into his own stream of consciousness. Time blurs accordingly. Oyamada flits between disparate events, months or years apart, from paragraph to paragraph, without transition or comment. Though it seems as if the events of the novel unfold over the first few weeks after the workers are hired, it later becomes clear that fifteen years have drifted by.
What might be baffling or frustrating in the hands of a clumsier writer assumes in Oyamada’s novels the quality of an enchantment. The reader, like the factory’s employees, learns to submit to the slipstream. One can rail against the mindlessness of corporate life, Oyamada suggests, or embrace it. But one can’t escape it. In The Factory’s final scene the shredder woman imagines herself becoming a black bird and flying to the ocean, an image that could as easily be taken as a symbol of transcendence as of despair.
Oyamada’s factory shares the same psychic architecture as the luxury tower of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, the endlessly vast underground hospital of Kobo Abe’s Secret Rendezvous, and the meticulously recreated apartment building of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, claustrophobic novels that shrink society within the confines of a single deranged edifice. The more rigidly a world is structured, the more disturbing the incursions of disorder and chaos. The Factory shares those novels’ preoccupation with themes of social control, surveillance, and social hierarchy, though Oyamada’s restraint brings her closer in sensibility to McCarthy than to Ballard or Abe. She would never begin a novel, as Ballard does in High-Rise, with a narrator eating the roasted hindquarter of his pet Alsatian, though there is a constant ominous hum suggesting that horrors on the order of canophagy are imminent.
Where, in Oyamada’s fluorescent-lit and temperature-controlled worlds, does this horror come from? The natural world, naturally—or at least what poses as the natural world, its inhabitants having been entrapped and neutered and poisoned by civilization. The factory hosts an eerie menagerie of novel species that have evolved to adapt to their industrial landscape. Giant flocks of identical cormorants, which never seem to produce offspring, spend their days staring longingly toward the factory walls. Packs of grayback coypu, a relative of the swamp rat that southern Louisianans call nutria, nest in the factory’s drainage pipes and grow to the size of seals; “washer lizards,” which spend their entire lives in the factory’s cleaning facilities, subsist on detergent, lint, and grime. In Weasels in the Attic we have, besides its eponymous critters, various aquaria of tropical fish, including a sharp-tailed baby bonytongue that in a nightmare leaps from its tank onto the sleeping narrator’s belly. The demonic presence at the bottom of The Hole is simply known as “the black animal.”
The Hole is narrated by Asa, who is so indistinguishable from The Factory’s shredder that she might as well be the same person. Nearly thirty, Asa quits her job as a temporary worker when her husband is transferred to a branch office in the countryside not far from his parents’ home. Or homes—his mother owns and rents out the house next door. The previous tenants have just left, she informs her son. A rent-free house, next to the in-laws: What could go wrong?
The house and its environs become another factory, a world of its own, with its own code of secrecy. It is summertime, unbearably hot, and the neighbors are all exceedingly old. Asa never sees a cat, a dog, or even a bird. A river runs through the area, but it is choked with so much waste that it looks “like it was made of gelatin.” Nobody goes outside, at least not while the sun is up, apart from a band of feral children who gambol in the shadows, just out of view. Where are their parents? Do they have parents?
Asa, jobless and friendless and aimless, her social calendar blank for the foreseeable future, falls into a psychological hole. Then she falls into an actual hole—a hole in the ground. She is led there by the black animal, a darkly charismatic beast about the size of a retriever, with wide shoulders, muscular thighs, yellow eyes, white fangs, and a long, pointy snout. She first encounters the animal on the riverbank while walking to the local 7-Eleven. She trails it through tall grass until she finds herself at the bottom of a hole about five feet deep. “The hole felt as though it was exactly my size,” she says. “A trap made just for me.”
One expects, at any second, that the black animal will lunge with gnashing teeth, that the flocks of black birds will rise in a sudden Hitchcockian assault, that the boar meat in the fatty stew will be revealed to be weasel meat. But Oyamada is careful to avoid detonating any of her lit bombs. After Asa spends a few minutes at the bottom of the hole, she is helped out of it by a well-dressed neighbor holding a parasol. “So, um, are there lots of holes around here?” asks Asa. “I really couldn’t tell you,” says the neighbor, mimicking one of The Factory’s functionaries. “You’d better stay on the path. Don’t get too close to the river.”
There are, it turns out, lots of holes around there. “This place is full of holes!” one of the feral children exclaims. “They’re everywhere.” There are also lots of mysterious biting red bugs, a grandfather who waters the garden in the middle of the night in a grinning, catatonic daze, and a brother-in-law whom Asa’s husband has somehow neglected to mention to her. Asa, like most of Oyamada’s characters, and occasionally Oyamada’s readers, often feels like she’s the only one not in on the joke. She realizes that she has no idea what her mother-in-law does for a living, she can’t explain what her husband does at his office, and she knows nothing about her father-in-law, who with two or three line edits would vanish from the novel entirely.
When she asks questions, they go unanswered. At the grandfather’s funeral, Asa asks her husband for fond memories of him. “What makes you ask?” he responds, as if she’s demanded to know the capital of Paraguay, before he returns his attention to his phone. Soon Asa stops bothering to ask. When she discovers that her husband has a secret brother who has been living in solitude for twenty years in a shack behind her mother-in-law’s house, his only companion the black animal, she doesn’t even raise it with him: “What would I do if he said they weren’t brothers? If that were true, then who was he? And what would I do if they were brothers? How could I respond to that?”
In The Hole, the bland formality of corporate life has spread, like an infection, to the family home. In Weasels in the Attic, it extends to the bedroom. When forty-year-old married couples are forced to discuss intimate matters with each other, they speak with the stilted bashfulness of middle schoolers in sex-ed class:
“Have you been, um, handling things…yourself?”
“Handling things?” I stared at my wife, confused. “What things?”
“How can I put it…I mean do you ever, um…You know…” I was shocked by the look she was giving me.
“Oh, you mean…Use my hand and stuff to…Do I do that?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. I had no idea what to say. My face must’ve been bright red.
“No, never, not since we got married…”
American readers might be inclined to detect, in such exchanges, a criticism of Japanese culture. But Oyamada’s tone is never satirical or polemical—she is the anti–Ryu Murakami. She shies away from geographical and cultural references, apart from the obsessively, even luridly itemized meals. (Boyd, to his credit, doesn’t bother trying to translate terms like inarizushi, azuma, and okara, all of which are used to characterize the same dish.) Her worlds begin small and shrink—to the size of a cubicle, or a hole. A trap made just for me.
One of the few characters willing to question the status quo is Asa’s shut-in brother-in-law. For all we know he is a product of Asa’s subconscious, since we never see him interact with anyone else. Though friendly to Asa, he explains that he has cut himself off from the world out of disgust with humanity. He reserves his greatest disdain not for greed or evil but for the human submission to what he calls “this current that never stops,” which is to say inertia, or liberal democracy, or capitalism.
When Asa asks him why the neighbors avoid speaking of the black animal, despite all the dangerous holes it digs, he replies: “What would you expect?… Most folks don’t see what they don’t want to see.” Most folks, at least, avoid speaking about disagreeable things. When people stop asking questions, Oyamada suggests, they can numb themselves to any monstrosity. Why has the river been allowed to become so polluted? Why do young people, no matter how unhappy they are, feel that they must mate and have children, beginning the cycle anew? Why do we allow ourselves to be so easily diverted by technology that we cannot sustain conversations with our loved ones? Why do we give ourselves fully to meaningless jobs in the service of faceless—and often psychopathic—corporations?
The answers to such questions are not especially mysterious, and Oyamada is not interested in pursuing them. Her subject is avoidance: the absurd contortions a person will perform to avoid seeing the world as it really is. Avoidance begins as farce and ends as horror, eroding not only one’s sense of reality but one’s own identity. Travel too far down this path and it becomes impossible to tell the difference between a printer cartridge and a bird, a husband and a total stranger, a weasel and a newborn child.