My Falling Down House is the story of a Japanese man, Takeo, who is on the precipice of a downward spiral. The global economic crisis has a domino effect on his life as he loses his job, his girlfriend (Yumi), his money in gambling and ends up on the road as Yumi takes over their apartment. Takeo decides to take refuge in a dilapidated house he had once discovered while at a work party. This house becomes his sanctuary where he is all alone, accompanied only by his Cello and a cat. He seeks to take refuge and recover from the mental anguish he has gone through after losing so much in a short span of time.
The narrative traces his mental and spiritual journey as he is consumed by hopelessness and seems intent on renouncing humanity. He prefers to crawl around rather than walk, abstains from food and even tries to plant his head in a desperate attempt to seek sustenance from external route. Joso depicts his tortured mental state with acute perceptiveness.
My Falling Down House is about making sense of loss and starting over with a clean slate; the agonizing journey of disintegration and reconstruction that a person goes through when he is broken emotionally, physically and psychologically. Takeo lives a solitary existence, and spends his days replaying and pondering over his childhood and experiences – personal disappointments and triumphs. He faces an existential crisis and tries to derive life philosophies out of all that he has experienced.
The house serves as an allegorical representation of Takeo himself. Its foundations are crumbling, its on the verges of collapse and in dire need for renovation. While the house’s ramshackled condition reflects Takeo’s broken down self, its resilience also gives him hope and inspiration.
“I noticed the breaks in the windows again, how damaged the place was. I wondered just how many quakes it had seen, and yet it was standing. Bent at the knees but standing.”
Takeo takes it upon himself to repair the house, in the process endeavoring to fix himself too. As he plunges deeper into his depression, he in engulfed by melancholy and Joso does a commendable job of articulately expressing what depression feels like. He is in a perpetual state of stupor, he loses his appetite and his grasp on reality becomes increasingly tenuous.
In the beginning, Takeo tries to battle his blues and strives to keep negative thoughts at bay. However, soon enough he drowns under the weight of his sorrow and succumbs to depression. Joso captures this act of surrender viscerally:
“Terrifying thoughts soon plagued my head, awake as in sleep. Gnawing away at every part of me. Chomping, pecking, biting. Grinding up my soul. And the sounds, the sounds … still they made their prey of me. So go ahead! Gnaw away, grind up my soul, tear my senses from the tree, and soon I will be done with! But let it be over. “
Takeo goes into an involuntary state of hibernation. He becomes increasingly delirious as he runs out of his stock of rice and has to go without food for many days at a stretch. He sees strange things in these illusive states : a temple and a shape shifter (yokai), which he can’t figure out whether they are real or just figments of his imagination.
“As for dreaming, the lack of clarity at moments; the slight, unsteady grip of reality, perhaps it is not the meagre diet that causes these symptoms, but just my state of mind, some strange internal cause, and like a machine, in some automatic way, I am generating stress, hallucinating some phantom condition. My mind, cranking things up in just the wrong way, making the body sick, perhaps for lack of stimulus? If this is this case I had better keep myself busy for longer, my mind distracted that it cannot fret or idle too long and conjure things which are not there and so insidiously steal my health. “
As he starts losing strength, he becomes aware of another human presence. This presence simultaneously soothes him and puts him on guard ; eventually sustaining him as he becomes weaker and more vulnerable.
The book, set against the backdrop of a financial crisis, contemplates the fickleness of the physical world, with its flimsy relationships and deceptive allure of material possessions. We find out that Takeo’s gambling addiction began as a desperate attempt to channel his pent-up frustration as a corporate slave. “I never cared about the money, but the gambling gave me a buzz. Something I never got from my job. All the bank ever did was chew up my soul. “
The prose is limpid yet poetic. Joso switches from clipped sentences to longer, more symbolic ones, mirroring Takeo’s conflicted, nebulous mind. One of the major pitfall of having a protagonist with a mental disorder is a self-involved narrative which ends up coming off as monotonous. But The Falling Down House is salvaged by its compact prose and precise narration.
The protagonist attempts at shunning his humanness and his desperation to somehow be one with nature reminded of The Vegetarian where Yeong-hye tries to break free of her mental anguish by forsaking food and retreating into herself. In the Afterword, the writer reveals that Kobo Abe’s The Box Man was the inspiration for this novel which is apparent by her protagonist’s abandonment of a conventional way of living and his earlier experiences of living in a box. My Falling Down House is a surreal, inventive piece of writing which has something to say about the nature of humanity and identity.
Published by Seren.