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Plainsong

by Kazushi Hosaka

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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Plainsong by Kazushi Hosaka
© Dalkey Archive
Dalkey Archive, August 2011

Originally published in 1990, Kazushi Hosaka's Plainsong is not so much a novel as it is a reaction to contemporary prose. Hosaka stands still amidst the forceful stream of dramatic literature, and in Plainsong renders a plot so peaceful and real that patient readers will marvel at the honesty and clarity he achieves with so little action.

In Plainsong's opening, the nameless narrator signs a lease to an apartment just before his girlfriend suddenly leaves him. Holding off a quiet wave of depression and loneliness, the narrator preoccupies himself with the neighborhood cats. He feeds strays and observes their behavior, evidently finding some solace in his ability to look after the creatures. Perhaps these feelings are still at work when his friend Akira asks if he can stay over indefinitely - the narrator quietly obliges, as if secretly hoping to fill his life (and empty apartment) with something to look after, and a little more meaning.

More houseguests flow through the narrator's home. Akira's girlfriend, Yoko, moves in and grows similarly infatuated with the area felines. Another friend, Shimada, drops in and together the four wander the Tokyo suburbs, clinging to whatever traces of youth they can still feel. Not quite in their thirties, the four find themselves caught between reminiscing of the past and looking towards the future. For the time being, though. they're perfectly content to just drift.
Hosaka works much of the themes of Plainsong into his story with easy, metaphorical dialogue. If this weren't such a simple novel, this sheen of "meaning" would feel almost slapdash and obvious, but it works in Plainsong. Portions of the novel feature lengthy discussions between the narrator and a coworker about horseracing, and Hosaka manages to simultaneously delve into racing probabilities as he explores broad ideas about life and growing up. As one character leans away from an obvious bet, Hosaka segues nicely into some inspiring lines for the simple salaryman:

"There was such a thing as a person whose talents were too obvious. It wasn't always the person with the special gifts who rose to the top...it was almost as though what you really needed to make it to the top was not so much talent itself as...as this thing, whatever it was, that saved you from standing out too much from the crowd."

Just as horseracing is used to present Plainsong's deeper themes, Hosaka introduces a filmmaker friend named Gonta who indirectly explains some of the literary motifs of the novel. Like Hosaka writes, Gonta films everyday simplicities in search of whispered plots. His techniques are explicitly detailed in Plainsong, almost as if Hosaka himself is speaking through Gonta:
"I want to show people that the life we live has nothing to do with the stories you see in movies or novels, where everything is simplified and dramatic and exciting. Our lives are our stories."

Both Hosaka and his characters accept the simplicities of their plots. And, with this acceptance, Plainsong coasts along with impressive confidence. However, the contented floating of these characters isn't met without a sense impending change. The cats, for instance, provide a lovely reminder of time's inescapability. They paw their way through the novel and appear sporadically through the text, each time a little bigger and a little more grown up.

Plainsong is a novel for the good old days, capturing an acceptably directionless time in many people's lives before they really need to grow up. Hosaka writes from an older and wiser point of view, though, and even allows his narrator some flashes of maturity and nostalgia during his wandering:

"The feeling was one I often have - a sense of something that vanishes into intangibility just before you can grasp it and put it into words. ...This sense of something nebulous, forever on the point of taking form verbally, but never quite doing so, is one that comes back to me even now from time to time, allowing me to taste again the pleasant sensation I often had back then of drifting aimlessly yet enjoyably through the days."
Bittersweet in all its facets, Plainsong dries like the most minimal of Still Life paintings. Some may find the novel's pacing to be listless with all of its non-events, but those who can find the line between care-free and careless will find a quiet, pleasant novel, and one that's quite memorable despite all of its inactivity.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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