The Plastic Factory by Ron Kolm — review by Mark McCawley

The Plastic Factory by Ron Kolm


review by Mark McCawley


Plastic-Factory-front-coverThe Plastic Factory
by Ron Kolm
ISBN: 978-1-57027-236-3
Autonomedia, $5.00 US
32 pp, 8.5 x 5.5, saddle-stitched

“I try to remember in the course of my day-to-day life that there are people out there doing things that are not very healthy… I try to keep that in mind that there are people dying out there; that the very things that make our lives easier are making other people’s lives worse… I use to have this whole equation that for every so called “plus” there was a “minus” — if you were a well to do family that had all these things, that somebody somewhere was sacrificing something…” ~Ron Kolm, commenting on ‘The Plastic Factory’, The Idiom Magazine Podcast #2

Originally published in five parts and as a 1989 Red Dust Pamphlet — In The Plastic Factory, Ron Kolm draws from his own experiences working in a plastic factory in his work of post-realist fiction.

In Robert Seigle’s seminal book, Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency (drawing it’s title from a poem of the same name by Ron Kolm that has appeared in over twenty magazines worldwide) Kolm says:

“My conception was to write about something so horrible in the most mundane of terms, as if it were an instruction pamphlet on how to work with this machine. But to write about people who were actually dying, and they were! And I was there!” ~Ron Kolm commenting on ‘The Plastic Factory’ to Robert Seigle (Suburban Ambush, Robert Seigle, John Hopkins University Press, London, 1989, p.36)

Kolm’s shock and horror at the sheer reality of the industrial deathscape comes through clearly in his writing. Seigle suggests to read Kolm’s distillations of the factory process of making plastic lenses is to see Kolm’s “own process of writing more like plastic explosives than the merely representational lenses of the workshop fiction he dislikes.” (Suburban Ambush, Robert Seigle, p.36).

In the opening section, the factory worker is displaced and dehumanized in true tech-manual style when Kolm describes the purpose of the “safety wall” that will blow the workers out into the fields rather than into the shipping room should the highly volatile plastic explode:

Styrene is possessed of strange properties.

It eats away the rubber soles of our shoes. It gobbles at bare skin. It devours eyeballs.

The barrels of styrene are clearly labeled “Non-Life-Supportive.”

Which means an atmosphere of pure styrene would kill you quick. Each time I enter the freezer to remove a drum, I gag on the stench, my head spins, I almost black-out, but if I’m lucky, and fast enough, I know I’ll probably emerge intact, it’s happened before. I usually survive.

In some ways styrene is poetic … it has poetic qualities. Styrene is one of the ingredients in model airplane cement. And model airplane cement, ingested through the nostrils, can alter a person’s consciousness. More than one Nirvana has been sealed by this method.

And styrene smells.

The smell gets in your clothes, your hair, everywhere. It has a very distinctive smell. People tend to avoid you. Nobody wants to make love with you. You become a pariah, an outcast, an abnormality.”

(The Plastic Factory, p.7)

It’s not too surprising then that when the narrative shifts from the factory to the domestic arrangements of Kolm the worker sharing with his wife “a decaying two-hundred-year-old stone farm house that clings precariously to the side of a steep embankment” (TPF, p.8) that he does not clearly see how the same volatile, caustic chemicals which “gobbles at bare skin” and “two-hundred-year-old stone walls” are eating away at his marriage, too:

Just describing the physical condition of my surroundings is tiring … but I’ve been avoiding the central issue … and that is that I’m going through a terrible period in my life.

My marriage isn’t working out.

My wife and I have become enemies, of a sort. She can’t stand the smell of plastic I drag around with me like a shroud. The house stinks of it—my workshoes, soaked with caustic styrene, sit in the furnace room decaying into their cardboard and leather components. Inerasable black footprints have stained the kitchen floor forever. The kitchen door is the only one I’m allowed to use when returning from work. I stumble into the dark chilly kitchen after midnight, gagging on my own stench, tear off my deformed boots, throw them in the general direction of the basement, open a beer, and try to drink myself back to sanity. Quite often I settle for gentle oblivion. Sometimes the smell is so strong in my hair, even after washing it, that I’m forced to make my bed on the living room couch, and I lie there, nursing a beer, looking at the nutty wallpaper, and think about my wife sleeping directly above me.

My wife, to save her life I suppose, has created a new lifestyle right before my eyes. She’s hung beaded curtains between the doorways, and cluttered the house with broken antique furniture. Vintage movie posters stare back at me from the walls. Strange electrical appliances proliferate—juicers and blenders and canopeners and hairdryers and waterpiks and humidifiers and crock pots and so on. She works in a health food store, and takes handfuls of vitamins all the time—her purse is filled with them. Also, she’s joined a spa, and I’m sure she’s having an affair with her physical therapist. I’m bitter, I’m bitter, and worse, this problem is all my fault.

I’m going through a nervous breakdown. No, that’s not entirely true. I’m going through a breakdown of the imagination. That is true. I have no conception of the future any more, and having no conception of the future means that I’m stuck here in an everlasting present, passively letting events flow over me like waves on the beach. I can’t seem to think my way out of the dilemmas I’m faced with … if it was one problem, or two, I might have a chance, but the job, the house, and my relationship are all tied together.”

(The Plastic Factory, p.11)

In 1989, Robert Seigle viewed Ron Kolm’s The Plastic Factory “as a microcosm of America in which the forms of order we fabricate are deadly to those who make them and who live within their high-pressure moldings.” I suggest, in 2013, the applicability of Kolm’s pamphlet needs to be widened and expanded to included the ever deepening negative externalities of a global economy and culture in which everything is a commodity affected by another party’s externality. That, and it’s effect upon the human condition, lest we all become mere cogs in the global factory.

Read The Plastic Factory, here.

Copyright 2012 Arthur Kaye ©

Copyright 2012 Arthur Kaye ©

Ron Kolm is one of the founding members of the Unbearables literary collective, and an editor of several of their anthologies: Crimes of the Beats, Help Yourself! and The Worst Book I Ever Read. He is also the co-author, with Jim Feast, of Neo Phobe, and the author of The Plastic Factory and Welcome to the Barbecue. Kolm’s papers were purchased by the New York University library, where they’ve been catalogued in the Fales Collection as part of the Downtown Writers Group. He has worked in most of New York City’s independent bookstores, including the Strand, St. Mark’s Bookshop and Coliseum Books, which crashed and burned on 42nd Street a couple of years ago. He currently works for Posman Books in Grand Central Station.

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3 Responses to The Plastic Factory by Ron Kolm — review by Mark McCawley

  1. Mike Lindgren

    Mr. McCawley does an excellent job of pointing up the political and social implications of Kolm’s dystopian vision… I would add that as a piece of writing The Plastic Factory has an urgency, a sardonic, brittle desperation, that marks it as a minor masterpiece of experimental writing. “A must-read”!

  2. bart

    this book is proof that the origins of the unbearables are working class & that the unbearables know very well who the enemy of the writer is: the factory owner & the minions of spin who have unleashed & empowered a world of asexual, apolitical & eviscerated prose to distract us from the issues – them.

    • Bonny