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Hidden Pain in “Terminal Boredom”

Hidden Pain in “Terminal Boredom”

  • A review of Izumi Suzuki's newly translated story collection, "Terminal Boredom."

Science fiction dystopias are often deployed as a means of examining politics, ideology, or technology, but for Izumi Suzuki, the medium serves an intimate exploration of anxiety, pain, and sadness. The translated stories collected in Terminal Boredom depend on science fiction dystopias, but focus on characters who are broken and seeking their own personal redemption, rather than the expected grand narratives about society as a whole. Even though sometimes they are “out of this world” aliens or living in reimagined societies of the future, these are people struggling in the same ways we struggle today. 

Six translators have translated from the Japanese the seven stories in the collection. Terminal Boredom is the first book by Suzuki to be translated into English, although another collection, Love < Death, will follow next year. Suzuki passed away in 1986, but wrote with a foresight that keeps her relevant even today. Her worldview can best be described as progressive. Women are front and center in the collection, with female friendship of particular importance. 

In “Women And Women,” a matriarchal society holds men in concentration camps, retaining these surplus people solely for reproduction. In the recent past, men were free members of society, but the narrator is too young to have known that world. She meets men on a school trip to a detention center. “Men turned out to be nothing like I expected,” she recalls. “They were scraggly and smelled funny, and all gave me the creeps.” Parallelling her school trip, the narrator has also noticed a stray boy in her neighborhood. He’s run away and avoided the camps. His father had lived as an outlaw, and for years the boy’s mother dressed him as a girl. The narrator befriends him. The success of Suzuki’s craft lies in her ability to create sympathy for this boy. His life has been hard. His father died of a treatable illness, but seeking medical help would have led to incarceration. The boy also must live hidden or risk being jailed. Suzuki convinces us, briefly, that this matriarchal utopia must have some dark secrets if young boys like this one fear incarceration in camps. And then the boy rapes the narrator. 

Since the narrator has never known a world with men, she is too innocent to protect herself. The boy explains so much to her, about fathers and how babies are made, and she is ill-prepared. She doesn’t even know enough to know she’s being raped as it happens. She has no language to describe the act other than to say she “spent the rest of the day learning about the unexpected, dreadful truth about human life. Learning it with my body.” Suddenly we realize why the men are locked up in concentration camps. Men are necessary for the continuation of the species, yet a dangerous, violent part of that existence. 

In this collection, Suzuki’s stories are reminiscent of the unhinged science fiction dystopias of the master of the craft, Philip K. Dick. In many of his works, as with the stories of Terminal Boredom, time and place often disconnect, often with the aid of drugs. And, like Dick, Suzuki often leaves out concrete details in favor of ambiguity, a sense of disconnection, and a grayness between black and white truths. This vagueness projects a sense of purposeful exclusion, allowing space for the reader to fill in many missing points while preventing the narrative pace from dragging. Suzuki is not particularly concerned with the technical details, like with space travel: the methods are unimportant. Space travel happens, much like we might take an airplane from New York to Tokyo without requiring an explanation of Bernoulli’s principle. When she writes about extraterrestrial species, they have more in common with the various peoples of earth than with any alien planet. They are, like the humans in the collection, attempting to fix themselves. 

Suzuki also allows the omission of information to build suspense in the stories. In “The Old Seaside Club,” two women, who have recently become friends, meet on the boardwalk of a distant leisure planet. Emi admits she is on the planet for therapeutic reasons, while the narrator tells us she’s in this paradise because she won the lottery. However, when the narrator starts conversing with the chair in her room, we begin to realize maybe something else is happening here. There is a confusion of space and time. As the story sprawls outward, we learn Emi has a drinking problem. In fact, everyone on this planet is really having a collective fantasy in order to reboot their brains as a form of therapy. Suzuki, though, masterfully maintains the suspense during the course of this story by doling out details only as required, slow-playing this reveal and creating suspense in the process. There is a deep sense too that the characters here are working through personal challenges. Suzuki focuses on the character’s relationships with each other, the friendship between Emi and the narrator, the narrator and Noashi, a famous celebrity, rather than on the surrounding setting. The science fiction serves as set dressing for their humanity. 

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Pervasive through the collection is a sense of melancholy. Suzuki draws from a deep well of sadness, like Emma in “Forgotten,” who starts off the story getting high from a drug she keeps in her pendant. Sol, her extraterrestrial lover, warns her she’ll become addicted. Emma is not unlike Naoshi and Emi in “That Old Seaside Club,” recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, trying to reboot their lives. The drugs cover a hidden pain, one Suzuki doesn’t always let us see, the sort of anxiety of youth some people survive better than others. The framework of aliens and interplanetary relations merely serves as a backdrop to Emma’s youthful restlessness, the drug use a symptom, but her choices are consequential; she ultimately has to choose between her lover and her family, her planet, her species. Suzuki doesn’t always allow her characters to succeed, and even when they do, success comes at a cost.

Suzuki has achieved cult status in Japan, according to the book’s dust jacket. It’s not difficult to see why. Although she has been dead for a quarter century, the stories retain a contemporary quality and relevance. Suzuki is confronting issues still very much in the cultural zeitgeist. Terminal Boredom provides a solid foundation to introduce her work, and the stories extend the canon of twentieth century science fiction. 

Terminal Boredom: Stories
by Izumi Suzuki
Translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan
Published April 20, 2021

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