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My Falling Down House

Jayne Joso
Publication Date: 
Thursday, September 8, 2016
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‘An unacknowledged gem: subtle, allusive, and deceptively ambitious.’ – The New York Times

My Falling Down House is a masterpiece’ – Anne Janowitz, Emerita Professor, Dept of English, Queen Mary University of London

‘This is a novel for anyone who has had a setback in life; for anyone who ever thought of escaping reality and retreating into the shadowy imagination. A beautiful exploration of identity by a hugely talented writer.’ – Eluned Gramich

‘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 Japan Society

Having lost his job and his home, Takeo Tanaka, a young Japanese man, takes refuge in a dilapidated wood and paper house. He sets himself projects in an attempt to hold on to his sanity and as recompense for trespassing and dwelling in a house for which he makes no payment. But with only a cat and a cello for company, his ability to distinguish between real and imagined events is soon deeply challenged, and he is ultimately held captive by his own paralysing suspicion of the outside world.

His fears and failing health keep him inside the house through four testing seasons, and he is driven to the edge of insanity as he pushes his creative abilities to keep himself occupied and retain his self-respect. He keeps notebooks, and attempts to map out the renovation work required on the house, constantly doubting his abilities but pushing his way through, endlessly searching for solutions. Building what he can out of the things he discovers inside the house, he permits his mind free reign to create and to mend.

When the shapeshifter (yokai) arrives, and begins to menace him, he is again made to doubt his sanity, and then also his sight, and his hearing. Questioning his previous life brings him to a point of crisis and he renegotiates his feelings towards a crippling modern world and all that this demands. As the seasons move on, he finds himself more and more deeply drawn into a relationship with nature and simple ways of living.

My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso is the Recipient of the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation Award, given to a work of fiction or non-fiction which helps to interpret modern Japan to the English-speaking world.


‘Joso has given us a philosophical and critical look inside the mind of someone from the “underground” in Dostoevskian style... a “man with no more substance than a pencil drawing, an image scratched in sand”. Brought down to zero, and beginning to depart from his cultural self, Takeo starts to see things he could never have seen before. But can he handle total freedom from society? Set in contemporary Japan... it simultaneously speaks to contemporary globalizing society at large. A remarkable achievement.’ – Sho Konishi, Professor in Modern Japanese History; Director, Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford


Review by Alison French, The Japan Society

Monday, February 26, 2018

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.

Review by Rabeea Saleem, Wales Arts Review

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

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 endeavouring 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 My 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.

Review by Anne Janowitz, Emerita Professor, Dept of English, Queen Mary University of London

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jayne Joso’s third novel, My Falling Down House, is a perfectly shaped 21st century narrative. She tells a story informed both by her experiences in Japan and in the world of architecture and as she had in her previous novels, Joso shows a remarkably agile and adventurous approach to what the novel as a form can be and do. She has, as she says in her excellent afterword, entered ‘the skin of a man, a Japanese man. I shiver myself inside him, I empty my mind to occupy his. . . I take his shape and the shapes of his thoughts as though I am a yokai (a shapeshifter).”  And his mind occupies Joso’s.  The result is a mysterious, moving, transformational, painful and delightful rendering of how a person comes to find out why they are doing what they do, and how that can turn into a fulfillment both transcendental and truly grounded, simple and sharply complex.   The novel is without frontiers even as it is enacted within one decaying house in Tokyo. Joso’s occupation of Takeo’s mind allows her to inhabit the sensibility of Japan today, which in the movements of the novel is felt as ‘now’ and ‘here’ and simultaneously, as a ‘forgotten way of living.’  Takeo’s fears and dreams become ours, as readers, and I felt as if I were really sharing the experience of what it is to be a “Japanese Man.”  My Falling Down House is a masterpiece, a perfect dwelling place for us to learn what matters to Takeo and to the novelist who has brought him to us.

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

This review was first published online by the Created to Read blog and can be read here

My Falling Down House is a philosophical portrayal of what it means to be reduced to nothing, to become a nobody, to fall to the very bottom of reality and to question what it is to be human. The book transports the reader to Tokyo and a young man named Takeo Tanaka, former employee of a company hit by the financial crisis. He loses his job, his girlfriend and his home in quick succession. Having lost everything, he moves into a frail, abandoned house, made entirely of wood and paper, and attempts a total withdrawal from society.   

Joso takes the reader on a journey inside the mind of Takeo Tanaka. We hear his thoughts, and begin to align ourselves with his view of things – a young man trespassing in a falling down house. The house acts as a kind of cocoon, providing protection from the world outside. It is also a metaphor for Takeo himself. The house is broken, falling down, full of cracks. Takeo is also broken, and his grasp on reality is gradually breaking down further. He is drawn to this house partly because it is safe and empty – a refuge from the world:

“I lay back down and felt the sun pour over me, a yellow rain, and with it a wonderful heat. So intense I wanted to make a blanket of it, pull it around me, and curl up inside. And I wanted to lie there that way a good long while, nothing but nothing in my head.”

To begin with, Takeo is at peace, happy to co-exist with Cat and Cello (who take on personalities of their own) and excited to create his own paper prototypes (fragile miniature dwellings made from cardboard boxes). But gradually a lack of nourishment leads to a physical breakdown. Takeo’s mind deceives him, as he becomes unable to discern between reality and imagination. He grows more and more afraid of discovery, realising that nourishment is what he really needs, yet unable to motivate himself to find it.

The novel explores the notion of self. What happens when someone’s whole world implodes, and all that is left is the physical body and the complexities of the human mind? Does this kind of trauma produce change in a person, or an entirely new identity?

Takeo eventually senses another presence in the house, invading his space. He cannot tell if this is a person or a spirit, conjured by his own mind. He fears human contact, and is both suspicious and full of hope. Then the presence becomes real and he begins to recover. But who has he become? And will he ever be able to step outside again?

My Falling Down House is written in a clipped concise prose that seems resonant of Takeo himself, occasionally mixed with a more colloquial phrase. It is addictive, leading you desperately from one page to the next, searching for the solution, along with Takeo, to the problematic situation in which he finds himself. But it is also frustrating, as Takeo denies himself the very things he needs, hungry and weak, unable to focus on reality. It is a strange, slightly stressful but intriguing narrative, exploring, in an elaborate and beautiful way, what happens to a person when everything they relied upon is lost. It does require patience, but is well worth persevering. I don’t recommend reading it whilst hungry.

Joso explains in the Afterword that she was inspired to write My Falling Down House by reading Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, as well as her personal experience of living in Japan. It is an attempt, she explains, to explore Japanese identity at a time when the country seems to be recovering from the trauma and change of recent years. But it is universal in its exploration of what it means to be human and how we make sense of ourselves.

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