TERMINAL BOREDOM by Izumi Suzuki (BOOK REVIEW)
Izumi Suzuki – Terminal Boredom (2021, translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan)
“All the shitty stuff stops bothering you. Like, you realize that there’s a simple way of dealing with everything that’s been weighing on you up til now. You can just tack on an illogical ending to the story, like a deus ex machina for life. Reality feels like a TV show, and TV shows feel like reality. It’s like the boundary between them breks down, like you’re living in a dream.”
Izumi Suzuki was a unique figure in Japanese speculative fiction. An actress and model who participated in the Japanese avant garde cinema of Shuji Terayama in the 1970s, she wrote sharp, incisive social SF that explores ideas around gender, alienation and drug use before committing suicide in 1986. Terminal Boredom is the first collection of her short stories to be translated into English, and is a timely introduction to Suzuki’s powerful work. Suzuki’s writing is angry, bleak and outspokenly feminist, echoing many of the contemporary concerns of New Wave writers such as Lisa Tuttle or James Tiptree, Jr in the US. Her stark and disturbing stories, in which reality and hallucination frequently mesh, is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and Anna Kavan. As an introduction to an incredible, powerful and unique voice in speculative fiction, one that we in the English speaking world have been unaware of for too long, Verso’s new collection of Suzuki’s stories Terminal Boredom is nothing short of essential. As the only English document of Suzuki’s work, however, it’s frustratingly incomplete. Lacking any kind of introduction to set out the incredibly interesting historical and social context of Suzuki’s life, the collection tantalisingly hints at Suzuki’s tumultuous life and the stories’ wider contexts in the blurb and author information, only to leave an incomplete picture. The frustration is exponentially increased when one learns that Terminal Boredom, with its brief seven stories, is cut down considerably from its Japanese counterpart, Keiyaku: Suzuki Izumi SF Zenshū [“Covenant: The Complete SF of Izumi Suzuki”] (Tokyo: Bunyū-sha, 2014), which compiles all of Suzuki’s short speculative fiction. One can only hope this is an indication of Verso’s intention to release follow up volumes collecting the missing stories.
Now that my griping is out of the way, I can focus on the stories themselves, all of which are excellent and thought-provoking speculative fiction. Suzuki’s stories tend to eschew technological fixation and narrative drive to focus instead on the inner lives of her characters as they struggle hopelessly against the mores of society. Many have a dream-like, surreal quality. Although no fewer than six translators contribute to the collection, Suzuki’s particular voice manages to make itself heard through all of the stories. The collection opens with ‘Women and Women’, Suzuki’s take on the gendered utopia, in which a feminist matriarchal society is ultimately shown to be upholding the restrictive gender binaries that it hopes to overthrow. The story’s impact comes largely from its expert portrayal of life as lived inside this society; because men are kept only for breeding purposes in specially designated ghettos, the story’s schoolgirl protagonist Yūko and her classmates have a very specific, idealised view of masculinity from manga and are disappointed when confronted with the real thing. Suzuki demonstrates how dividing society up among gender lines does not serve to erase gender binaries, rather the rigid separation results in a society that has if anything stricter and more ritualised ideas about gender expression. The story ends in bloody violence, the only way this society can be maintained.
This fascination with the roles society expects us to play recurs throughout the stories. ‘Night Picnic’, perhaps the best story in the collection, focuses on alien inhabitants of a ruined city who try to understand what the long-absent humans might have been like by roleplaying as a nuclear family. The story, like Lisa Tuttle’s superlative ‘Wives’, explores ideas around colonialization and appropriation of identity, using speculative fiction’s power of estrangement to bring home both the ridiculousness of social expectations placed on husbands, wives, sons and daughters, but also the inherent tragedy of the aliens being unable to fully understand what it means to be human despite enthusiastically immersing themselves in our culture. Without the lived experience, the closest they can get is broad pantomime. The story combines all of Suzuki’s considerable talents – it’s bleak, but it’s also darkly humorous and strangely affecting. ‘Forgotten’, in which a human woman struggles to connect with her alien husband, similarly echoes themes of stories by James Tiptree, Jr and explores the difficulty of connection between two different people against a darkly comic rendering of interstellar imperialism.
Other stories, with their combination of failed technological fixes for social problems and our destructive relationship with them, anticipate the extent to which the internet and social media would infiltrate and warp our society in the real world. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ tells the story of a woman who becomes dependant on a drug that speeds up her perception of time, resulting in her withering away into an old woman before her time. ‘You May Dream’ is set in a future where people can opt out of modern life by going into cryostasis and living in their friends’ dreams until such time as the population crisis is solved and they can be awoken; the protagonist’s friend is simply not ready for the extent of the protagonist’s nihilistic solipsism. The nostalgic paradise planet in ‘That Old Seaside Club’ turns out to be an immersive form of therapy, one that frequently causes more harm than good thanks to people’s desire to run from reality. The spirit of Anna Kavan hangs over these stories, which are more about the emotional journey of their alienated and disturbed protagonists in mental landscapes that reflect the dissolution and collapse of the characters’ mental states. The collection saves the bleakest for last in the truly unsettling title story, in which depressed, alienated teenagers install a device in their brain that lets them give up on the horrendous world they find themselves in. Finished shortly before Suzuki’s suicide, the story is a frightening glimpse into her headspace at the time.
Terminal Boredom is short, but each of its seven stories pack an incredible punch. I was left desperately wanting more – I want to know more about Suzuki’s life, and I want to read more of her short fiction and her novels. I can only hope that this collection, which is essential reading even in its frustrating brevity, will lead to more of Suzuki’s work becoming available to English readers in translation.