Books

Every Coupling Depends on Lies, and Men Are Aliens

TERMINAL BOREDOM
Stories
By Izumi Suzuki
Translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi and Helen O’Horan

In Izumi Suzuki’s story “You May Dream,” translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, a young woman concerned about a government lottery to cryogenically freeze citizens as a method of population control asks a plaintive question: “But haven’t you ever thought about … our dignity as human beings?” The reply comes quickly: “Nope, not once.” The worried friend goes on — “law of death … crime against humanity … Blah blah blah” — as our narrator zones out. It’s a typical exchange in this dystopian collection, “Terminal Boredom,” the first of the author’s work to appear in English.

Whether Earth is colonizing new planets or humans are getting chips implanted in their skulls, each story hinges on a rejection or adherence to the conventions born of technofascism. Invariably, Suzuki, who died at 36 in 1986, takes the side of the fatalist, the renegade, the dropout. “I have no remorse about having no remorse,” one heroine says. “I devote myself to the acme of emptiness,” says another. When one narrator’s father commits suicide, even that fails to be sufficiently gloomy: “He actually believed his death might have some kind of effect. Talk about optimistic.”

Within these stories, fatalists and optimists need each other for argument’s sake, but the question of whether men and women need each other remains open. Every coupling depends on lies, and men are often aliens, quite literally in Suzuki’s worlds, complete with green skin and hair. “The very idea that I would fall in love with a man, that class of people I secretly feel such contempt for,” a woman thinks as she looks at her partner, “I hate you for making it happen.”

In “Women and Women,” translated by Daniel Joseph, men are a “deviant strain” of humanity, “utterly unmanageable creatures” who arrived in the populace, invented all manner of hostility, then mysteriously began to die off. Any remaining men have been exiled to the GETO, that is, the Gender Exclusion Terminal Occupancy zone. The civilization that remains is both lesbian utopia and police state. “To doubt this world is a crime,” so our unnamed narrator, naturally, does just that when she meets an escaped boy who teaches her “the unexpected, dreadful truth about human life.” Readers in 2021 will likely see a trauma in that ending, but the character is simply changed and unhappy.

That Suzuki’s prose has been described as “punk” has more to do with her disaffected narrators than her formal choices. Her plots are straightforward, even slightly predictable, though that may be a generational matter; what passed for speculative warning in the 1970s and ’80s, now seems more directly descriptive of our present ills. In the collection’s title story, the most disturbingly contemporary piece, two ex-lovers idle around a plaza. “Unfettered spaces scare me,” the narrator admits, “I’m not used to scenes that aren’t in a frame.” The world is overpopulated and underemployed. “They were saying on the news that more and more young people were forgetting to eat, starving to death,” so the uneasy pair stop for soup, “sitting side by side, gazing at the video screen.”

Later, back out on the plaza, they witness a gruesome killing. Cops in flying ships violently apprehend loiterers, but they’re slow to respond to an actual murder. Gazing “at the bloody aftermath of the attack,” the man observes: “That was so intense. … Almost like the real thing.” When he notices that a bystander has been filming the scene, he asks for a copy.

As bleak as it is, “Terminal Boredom” may be the most hopeful story in the collection, as the female narrator slightly resists (albeit unsuccessfully) the violent, numb culture in which she’s confined. The work and messages of Ursula K. Le Guin, the author’s longer-lived contemporary, come to mind. Both Suzuki and Le Guin knew that gender roles are a matter of costume or control, affect or affliction. The terms we use to define humanity are often inhumane.

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