Counterculture(s) Past: Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom

The first of two collections of Izumi Suzuki’s (1949-1986) work forthcoming from Verso Books, Terminal Boredom: Stories contains seven pieces appearing for the first time in English translation—in some cases more than forty years after their original release. However, from gender politics in a queer matriarchy to media oversaturation and disaffection, the themes of her fiction still thrum with a resistant, brightly grim tension. Passing decades certainly haven’t dulled the the razor’s cut of her punk sensibilities.

Instead of one translator handling the entire collection, the stories are split between six: Daniel Joseph, David Boyd, Sam Bett, Helen O’Horan, Aiko Masubuchi, and Polly Barton. Across their individual stylistic approaches to Suzuki’s prose, bedrock features come through: crispness edging toward a cruel gloss in the dialogue, emotional saturation (or desaturation) as both literal experience and speculative metaphor, references to American films and Jazz music. The future, or a dream of the future, always arrives alongside struggle for people whose lives don’t match up to the mainstream—who stand a step outside of comfort.

Reading stories from the late seventies/early eighties requires a layered approach: how do I respond to and understand the book in the present—while at the same time holding an awareness that these stories come from a specific historical moment? For example, the gender politics of “Woman and Woman” and its treatment of trans-ness or sexual consent read as a product of their era; recall work by writers like Joanna Russ or James Tiptree, Jr. in the Anglophone publishing sphere for comparison. On that note, I’d argue it’s a curatorial misstep on the editors’ part that Terminal Boredom doesn’t include an introduction—or even notes on the original publication dates, in the edition I read.

If you aren’t already familiar with Izumi Suzuki: she’s often referenced as a legendary figure in Japanese sf and as a countercultural icon. However, in Anglophone circles that “legend” has tended to focus on intimate details of her life and death rather than her writing. So, given the regularly co-opted and erased influence of her work (or Japanese science fiction more broadly) on the canon of English-language sf, the publication of Terminal Boredom serves two purposes: introducing a fresh set of readers to her work… and demanding the respect that work richly deserves from English-language audiences.

But now that I’ve said my piece about remembering the historical context these stories come from, I’ll admit that while reading them, I forgot. Suzuki’s prose reached through time and snatched the breath out of me—rolled me under the crush of nakedly real depictions of human failure to connect, of awfully prescient future imaginaries, and of the cold calm knife of boredom juxtaposed against a frantic desire to begin life again. The speculative frameworks are integral scaffolding for Suzuki’s frank explorations of longing, attachment, addiction, and social control.

The book hurt, exquisitely, to read. Suzuki wields affect with the skill of an emotional surgeon and the imagination of a dreamer who recalls to precise detail the world’s flaws. I was lulled into a false sense of security with the first story, “Woman and Woman,” which read familiar to me as someone who’s spent lots of time on feminist dystopian/utopian fiction of the seventies. But after that, all bets are off. I felt a lot of things while reading Suzuki’s stories; most of them were as intimate as a stab-wound, and bled just as hard.

One of those blood-pounding central themes is gender: at once hyper-present and vanishing into the distance. As the protagonist of “You May Dream” says to herself, “Syzygy? Androgyny? I’m no man and I’m no woman. Who needs gender anyway? I just want to get out of this place, to be on my own.” Across the collection, Suzuki sketches out emotional attachments between women and women, men and women, women and fantasies of beautiful feminine men, and so on. “Night Picnic,” the most surreal of the stories, is a direct send-up of American Graffiti and the phenomena of white American suburban gender roles—which shapeshifting monsters on another planet are attempting to mimic, and for what? Given the commentary on colonialism and cultural imperialism that crops up later in the alien/human interracial marriage of “Forgotten,” Suzuki’s grappling with cross-cultural media exchanges adds another tier to the critique.

The women of these stories are also all outsiders, to some extent or another. Suzuki frequently centers the experience of being a person for whom connection, desire, and strong emotion don’t come readily. As the protagonist of “You May Dream” describes herself, “Whatever the situation, nothing ever reaches me on an emotional level. Nothing’s important. […] Covered in thick plastic – that’s how I’ve made myself. Over years and years. The sadistic act of self-creation.” Or, there’s Jane in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”—a piece that had me choking on grief, where a woman who’s taken too many drugs that prematurely age her visits her still-young lover who at first cannot recognize her—who offers the following comment on himself:

‘Maybe it’s because I’m two-faced? Been this way since I was a child. I don’t trust others, you know. I tell myself there’s no way that anybody will ever like me. As a result, even though I’m craving some love, I can never accept it. You know? It’s like someone starving to death but not eating the food in front of them because they can’t stop wondering if there’s poison in it.’

To be unable to form attachments in the usual or expected manner, to feel less than others do for relationships, is something I don’t often see rendered with such care and compassion.

Suzuki’s preoccupation with boredom and disaffection as a constant, effervescent pall over life also haunts several pieces. The titular story, “Terminal Boredom,” is a hair-raising representation of technological oversaturation that severs people from their ability to separate harm in fiction from harm in reality—sound familiar?—while simultaneously echoing the physical and psychic symptoms of depression. Paired with an exhausted terror of boredom is a recurrent longing to start life anew, to escape and do it over again better. The most explicit form of this appears in “That Old Seaside Club,” a piece about a mental health treatment that tosses people into a dream-world in an attempt to reset their hang-ups—allowing them to do a practice reboot as their younger, fresher, easier selves. As a reader with mental health struggles… ouch.

Whether forty years ago or last night, Suzuki’s use of speculation to explore frightful and naked emotion remains powerful. She was, as this collection shows, a master of her craft—and given that, I’d argue Terminal Boredom: Stories is best read slow. Immerse yourself inside the exchanges of dialogue and the quiet still moments. Read with your soft underbelly available for the occasional knifing observation or turn of phrase. Be patient and luxurious and attentive. These stories offer a glimpse into countercultures past—as well as into Suzuki’s unique understanding of what it meant to be a woman struggling with attachment and addiction. However, the fresh hells of technological saturation, depression and confinement, and constant risk of state violence that appear in these tales feel vitally contemporary, as if Suzuki peered through the decades and saw the future darkly true.

Terminal Boredom is available from Verso Books.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.


Back to the top of the page

1 Comment

This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.