Tr. from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan
There’s an underlying feeling of discomfort in “Terminal Boredom,”the eponymous story that concludes Izumi Suzuki’s collection of short fiction. In the story, two characters witness a violent crime on the street. “I was rooted to the spot, almost like the real thing,” one of them says, confusing the scene in front of them with a fictional narrative, almost acting as a vessel for the voice of the reader. These characters inhabit a dystopia in which TV is so pervasive that fiction blurs with reality; the television screen is a permeable boundary, where manufactured narratives seep into their real life, muddling their sense of distinction between the two. The narrator says, “unfettered spaces scare me. I’m not used to scenes that aren’t in a frame.” The narratives of each of the stories in this collection, while distinct from one another, seem vaguely connected through themes that arise here; meditations on performance, the technological framing of human stories, and how familiar and unfamiliar landscapes can merge and blend like ink.
Terminal Boredom is the first collection of stories by Izumi Suzuki to be translated into English. While information about Suzuki’s biography online is sparse, it seems her career was eclectic and her life was often tragic, perhaps informing her signature alternative and speculative style of writing. After working as a bartender and key-punch operator in Japan, Suzuki began her creative career as a model and actress, but was particularly prolific as a writer of essays and fiction. In 1986, nearly a decade after losing her ex-husband to a drug overdose, Suzuki died by suicide at the age of 36. There is often a mythicism woven around creative women who die young; interpretations of work by women such as Francesca Woodman, Ana Mendieta, or Sylvia Plath are informed by an overarching sense of tragedy and mystery. The cover of Terminal Boredom definitely plays into this, depicting an askew image of Suzuki’s confrontational gaze that is almost ghostly and elusive in nature. Despite her writing being mostly new to Western audiences, the book has no introduction, providing no context on the time they were written in or the biography of the writer, which perhaps contributes to this feeling of unknowability.
Although they were written in the 70s and 80s, some of these stories feel so fresh that it would be easy to mistake them as new. The first, “Women and Women,” is the only one that feels outdated in its rigid understanding of gender. This matriarchal world in which men are mostly eradicated by an ambiguously-described “pollution” is a clear exercise in the subversion of utopia that only reinforces the gender binary rather than trying to dissolve it in any interesting way. While the reader gets the feeling that information and history is being repressed and reshaped, and as the dystopian underbelly of the landscape is revealed, the outcome is less impressive and thoughtful than the stories that follow. The other works are more loosely experimental, speculative, and dynamic, using science fiction to question how interpersonal relationships function within different social and political systems.
Throughout the collection, the reader is invited into strange and futural worlds, while context slowly unfolds, and it is this, rather than any solid plot, that drives the stories forward. In Suzuki’s landscapes, days are damp, nights are swampy, and time passes like a river, carrying along adrift characters who have little agency. Any semblance of linear time is malleable; shifting between expansive and repressive at the writer’s whim. “My days here are like tissue paper,” says the protagonist of “That Old Seaside Club,”a story about a holiday world in which nothing is quite as it seems.“I float around, dazed, and any memories of the past are blurred and hard to pin down.” Suzuki conceptualizes worlds that time seems to bend around, with writing that is distorted, twisted, and textural. And the characters who inhabit these landscapes almost seem inconsequential, unmoored, and terminally apathetic.
“Night Picnic”is the story of a family, supposedly the last group of humans in a barren post-apocalyptic town. Each of the characters perform humanity to one another in order to sustain a semblance of identity, watching old videos and films to inform their stiff movements and bizarre interpretations of human interaction. The father writes artificial news stories, so they have something to read over a coffee in the morning. “I kind of want to try getting my heart broken,” says the son; the absurdity of his nonchalance demonstrates how human experiences have become playful experiments for them. The daughter decides to perform a teenage rebellious phase by locking herself in a cupboard for hours, which quickly becomes a stilted and farcical rite of passage. But as it becomes clear that the surrounding houses are unoccupied and the town is empty, the prevailing question is: who are they performing for? The answer is themselves; human nature as transposed onto this group becomes a distinctly insular and unshared experience. As their constructed exteriors slowly unravel, we are left feeling like this is a story about delusion and isolation, but in equal measure, about what it means to embody and perform culture and identity.
Set in a world in which overpopulation means that some citizens can choose to live in others’ dreams rather than in reality, “You May Dream”is a story laden with tension. The narrator and her friend who begins to inhabit her subconscious start to not get along, and as the friendship collapses, Suzuki’s writing loses its stability, becoming more syrupy and contorted. The result is a fascinating investigation into how landscape itself can embody or reflect the mood of a story. As their relationship deteriorates, expansive dreamscapes become labyrinths and cavernous networks, changing spatially and texturally. In the dreams, light is erosive and violent, while darkness is humid and oppressive. The language itself is sticky, resentful, and never quite clear, and subtleties of the plot are revealed through swarms of dialogue. The shifting world, eventually desolate and infertile, comes to mirror the fragmented relationship itself.
“You May Dream”is not alone in its illustration of a broken relationship. Perhaps the most poignant of the stories is the penultimate, “Forgotten.”Set against the backdrop of political hostility between Earth and a planet called Meele is an affecting story about miscommunication between a human woman and her alien boyfriend. Depicting a relationship through fraught dialogue, the story explores alienness as a form of otherness. Suzuki pauses on the silence that lingers between the couple; “even in her arms, he was always able to liberate himself from her, to make himself free. She envied him that. Sol was an alien.” As readers, we dwell on this unspoken, negative space, while their suspicions of one another function as a microcosm of the tensions between their planets. Her boyfriend’s green skin and hair embodies this cultural gulf between them, and later, as she has to dye her face green in order to seek refuge on his home planet and she becomes disconnected from her own sense of self, the gulf deepens. The concluding line speaks volumes: “there was no intergalactic war, just a minor skirmish. Six months later, Meele became a colony of Earth.” We are left with this dynamic that reframes the whole story, contextualizes the imbalance in their relationship, and reminds us of the narrator as a single, flawed perspective.
Across seven stories, Suzuki demonstrates a keen engagement with political themes that are increasingly familiar to us, as contemporary readers; some seem to coexist with the present day almost too well. It would be easy to say that the permeation of television screens into daily life in “Terminal Boredom” is a prophetic tale that foreshadows a 21st Century dependency on phones and screens in all aspects of work and social life. Perhaps, instead, its predictive nature is historically rooted and justified, finding form in the budding apathy of late Capitalism that was emerging when they were written. There is a feeling of permanence to the lull that Suzuki’s characters are experiencing, and her writing plays with mundane realism as much as it does ambitious imaginative concepts, to explore what it means to form and develop an identity during perpetual social collapse. For its time, the writing is subversive, defiant, and unapologetic, and for our time, it is poignant and prescient. Suzuki demonstrates stylistic variety, while not shying away from difficult or contentious themes. Each work is ambitious in its own right, weaving narratives that provoke unanswerable questions, revealing her skill in encapsulating whole worlds in few words.
Leah Binns is a Liverpool-based essayist and arts writer with an MSt from University of Oxford.