My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso

My Falling Down House
by Jayne Joso
Seren (2016)
ISBN-13: 978-1781723395

Review by Alice French

It is difficult to envision, in our world dominated by the internet and social media, the sensation of being truly and utterly alone. Without the comforting sounds of the television or radio, the reassuring smartphone notifications, or the background hum of Spotify playlist. Imagine going for a day, or even just an hour, without any kind of human interaction, or any technological proof of one’s membership to society. For me, it is virtually impossible to picture being so alone, with only one’s own thoughts for company; and the prospect is, quite frankly, terrifying.

It is difficult to say whether Joso’s masterful My Falling Down House is an advertisement for, or a warning against, such isolation from society. It follows the thoughts, dreams and humble adventures of Tanaka Takeo, as he comes to terms with living alone, and in turn comes to terms with himself. After losing his job and splitting up with his girlfriend, the protagonist is left with nothing but “an abandoned and dilapidated” house, a cat, and a cello to his name. Shut off from human contact, material possessions, and food, Takeo is reduced to the rawest form of the self, often referring to himself as foetal in his musings. We find ourselves immersed in his, often nonsensical, conversations with himself and experience hallucinations through his eyes. From the euphoria he finds in natural sunlight, to his distress that comes with the loss of his hair, Joso allows us intimate insight into Takeo’s every up and down.

Joso’s mastery lies in her ability to make a seemingly inaccessible scenario relatable. Takeo’s monologue is interspersed with beautifully eloquent metaphors and poetic breaks that make it easy to get lost in her narrative. The blatantly absurd becomes almost sensible as Joso leads the reader into Takeo’s delusional self. We are so immersed, in fact, that his decisive plan to ‘plant’ his bare head in the ground in order to regrow his head hair seems feasible. Even Takeo himself later admits that ‘attempting to plant my un-plant-like self is now the most unique event in my life’.

Despite the loneliness, hunger, and near insanity, My Falling Down House is ultimately a celebration of the self. Starved of everything else, Takeo discovers that ’what remains is ambition…box dwelling ambitions‘. As the legendary Abe Kobo alluded to in The Box Man, give a man an empty box, and he will create a home. Takeo finds that “a box is a house is a place,” which is all one really needs for self-exploration. Although Takeo’s isolation is at times bleak, and there are indeed moments when Joso leads us to believe he won’t make it, free from the conventions of society, his inner self actually thrives. The burden of societal expectations is reduced to nothing more than Takeo’s almost comical obsession with his hair, which he sees as a symbol of his formerly successful salaryman lifestyle.

In such a way, My Falling Down House provides a welcome escape from the everyday stress of living in modern society. It is a reminder of the basic importance of understanding one’s self in a world where we are constantly bombarded with virtual versions of others. Left with no one to compare himself to, Takeo Tanaka does not fade into insignificance, but rather his self becomes the only significant thing in his life. The direction of his thoughts, his relationship with nature, his search for sustenance, are all that consume him. While Takeo does learn never to take for granted the luxuries allowed by societal interaction, what he ultimately discovers is the impermanence and insignificance of them all. As Abe Kobo  asserted more than forty years ago, and as still rings true in Joso’s novel today, “the world intends to keep its mouth entirely shut” about the feasibility of living without participation in and cooperation with modern society. What matters is an understanding and acceptance of the self, and nothing else.

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