The In-Between Generation
A Review of Kazushi Hosaka’s Novel Plainsong
By Brianna Berbenuik
Kazuchi Hosaka’s first novel Plainsong is full of characters who read like Japanese versions of Bret Easton Ellis’s narcissistic, directionless young Americans.
They seem trapped in limbo, on an aimless pursuit while an older generation overtakes them. They suffer from what you might call premature nostalgia, a Quixotic expectation, an empty yearning for something that doesn’t exist for their generation but was ever-present for generations before.
Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels. They are, after all, an “in between” generation.
Hosaka was born 1956 within the same decade as two better-known Japanese authors: Haruki Murakami (IQ84 and Kafka on the Shore) and Ryu Murakami (Almost Transparent Blue and Coin Locker Babies). Haruki Murakami established himself as a literary giant with a distinctive style often aligned with magic realism (in Plainsong the nameless protagonist mentions that he once wrote an article about Haruki Murakami); Ryu Murakami writes about sex, drugs and the disenfranchised youth of Japan; Kazushi Hosaka, in contrast, has taken on the subtle and quiet themes of everyday people, exploring relationships with a delicacy and sensitivity that gives his writing a “naked” feel without being too revealing.
Hosaka’s prose is sparse and minimalist. His slender novel is a meandering journey, almost dream-like despite the plain, everyday details. The action takes place in 1986 (when Hosaka would have been thirty). The nameless narrator’s girlfriend has just left him; he suddenly finds himself accumulating a steady stream of strange house guests. The novel allows you to watch the characters through the eyes of the narrator, but does not allow you intimate access to their thoughts or feelings. They are passing acquaintances; simple, transient people entering and exiting the reader’s field of view in the course of the novel. At the end, they are easy to let go. Like a passing satellite view – you’re there, then you’re gone and over different terrain.
At its thematic core, the novel is about a generation set adrift in the wake of parents and grandparents who fought in wars, and who saw a very different Japan than the characters living in Plainsong. It’s not that they are on a quest to “find themselves” or find their stake in the world – precisely the opposite. They seem to want to lose themselves, and shirk any responsibility. Not many of the characters, for example, are employed. Our nameless narrator makes a modest income, but as for his house guests, they do not hold down jobs, nor seem interested in doing so. The characters are, perhaps unconsciously, trying to find an alternative way to live – caught between a modernized and capitalist Japan, and perhaps the (invisible) expectations and ideals of a former generation (which led to world war and nuclear catastrophe).
Thematically, and only at a certain level, this is the universal struggle between generations, much like, as I say, Bret Easton Ellis’s vision of American youth, but with a particularity based on nation and history.
Interspersed between the vignettes of the narrator interacting with his house guests are forays into the world of gambling on horse races, and the conspiratorial aspirations of one character to win based on varying formulas he thinks he has “discovered” to prove that the derbies are all fixed and winners are pre-determined. Horse racing works practically and metaphorically within the framework of the novel without being pretentious, overwhelming, or boring. The narrator’s interaction with the sport and its enthusiasts, these derby digressions, nicely punctuate the novel and manage to explore the broad metaphor of horse races and ‘the meaning of life’ and the attempt to find that meaning (to comedic and ultimately fruitless ends).
Yumiko, the narrator’s old college friend whom he often contacts via telephone, is the only person in the novel with real adult responsibilities—she has a child to care for. Yumiko is never a physically present character, as she is kept on the periphery and is only interjected into the story three or four times. But she speaks with the most gravitas and practical sense. Yumiko is the only character that seems to have found her stake in the world, and she is plain-spoken and at times hilariously sensible, in that she doesn’t fall for the narrator’s bullshit and will call him on it often. The narrator, although thoughtful, is not a particularly deep thinker and tends to float just as aimlessly through life as his oddball house guests.
The fact that Yumiko never appears in a scene in the flesh adds to the sense of the bubble the other characters are living in – a protective void without aim or goals. Despite the fact that she is only voice on the phone, Yumiko seems like the focal point of the novel, and the thematic axis around which everything else evolves. She has succeeded in finding her stake in the world, in society, and in the future, while the others do not have that attachment to outside life – only to themselves. They live in a closed-loop, often disappearing up their own asses, as it were – which is another reason why Yumiko’s voice in the novel is so pricelessly entertaining. She doesn’t tolerate heads up asses.
It is difficult to classify Plainsong, or to find a place for it in contemporary pantheon of Japanese writers. Hosaka’s style is quiet, muted, and nearly plotless, unlike Murakami’s epic and vast plots, hunts for missing people, journeys into the past or underground into magical circumstance. Neither is it like the dreamy realms of Banana Yoshimoto – it lacks her signature sentimentality, nostalgia, broken hearts and emotional sensitivity. It certainly lacks the razor-edge of Ryu Murakami, and is not a hardboiled feminist crime novel like the work of Natsuo Kirino. Hosaka is instead the quiet observer in the corner, following not the excitement of crime, or the intense emotional lives of people in crisis, but rather the mundane and quirky lives of ordinary twenty-to-thirty-somethings who wind up living together.
Plainsong is a slice-of-life book populated with quirky characters and designed as a strange yet bizarrely charming peep-show into the lives of half-lost characters stumbling through life.