‘Terminal Boredom’ by Izumi Suzuki (Review)

Having arrived in July, we can see August’s Women in Translation Month on the horizon, and I’m already considering my choices for this year’s event (of which a few will be Japanese, of course).  With that in mind, today’s choice might well be one on many people’s radars.  It’s a new release, by a woman who was very much her own writer, and while she sadly passed away back in 1986, the stories she left behind very much reflect the way we live now…

Izumi Suzuki was a big name in Japanese SFF, a writer with a style all of her own, and Anglophone readers now have the chance to sample her work in the form of Terminal Boredom (review copy courtesy of Verso Books and their Australian distributor Bloomsbury).  It’s a selection of seven longish stories taken from her posthumous greatest hits collection, and the pieces are connected by a slightly offbeat approach, which extends to the striking cover and the translation, provided by six different people.

The stories are all set in a recognisable but slightly dystopian future.  The opening piece, ‘Women and Women’ (tr. Daniel Joseph), takes us to a world where men have almost died out, with the few remaining kept in what’s called the Gender Exclusion Terminal Occupancy Zone – or the GETO (methinks James might have coined that expression himself…).  It comes as a surprise, then, when a young woman sees a man, a real one, just strolling past her window one morning, and despite all the warnings from her younger sister, she decides to find out for herself just what men are really like.

There’s a slightly different slant to ‘You May Dream’ (tr. David Boyd), in a world where overpopulation means people are drafted to enter cryogenic sleep until the authorities have figured out a solution.  The protagonist here is another of Suzuki’s jaded women, turning their backs on a society that’s lost its gloss:

In the waking world, I obsess over the superficial.  I devote myself to the acme of emptiness.  And that devotion infiltrates my dreams, the world of my unconscious.  Covered in thick plastic – that’s how I’ve made myself.  Over years and years.  The sadistic act of self-creation.
‘You May Dream’, p.50 (Verso Books, 2021)

The question  here is how she’ll cope when those dreams are invaded by the consciousness of a friend who’s gone into cryogenic sleep, one with a very different attitude to life and love.

If I’m honest, Terminal Boredom didn’t always hit the spot for me, mainly because of the jaded protagonists and their slangy language, and the three shorter pieces in the middle of the book felt like a bit of a slog.  I wasn’t a fan of ‘Night Picnic’ (tr. Sam Bett), a strange story where the main characters are doing their best to act as ‘Earthlings’ on a distant planet, one of several pieces to show a slight obsession with popular culture of the distant past.  The same could be said for ‘That Old Seaside Club‘ (tr. Helen O’Horan), in which a woman tries to get away from it all on an extended holiday, and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘ (tr. Aiko Masubuchi), featuring a rapidly ageing drug addict and a strange approach to time.

It might be a personal preference, but the longer pieces seemed to work far better.  The excellent ‘Forgotten’ (tr. Polly Barton), seems like a typical story of a long-term relationship – except that one partner is an alien…  In this case, men are from Meele, not Mars, and as well as dealing with a love that’s gone stale because of different interests, the story looks at interplanetary politics.  However, if you look closely enough, you’ll see that there’s a fair amount here that could be applicable to more terrestrial ideas of colonialism.

The collection culminates in ‘Terminal Boredom’ (tr. Joseph), a fitting name for the book as a whole and a story that brings together many of the themes.  Suzuki takes us to a society where people are so listless they can’t be bothered to eat or have sex, and most people are far more concerned with TV than real life:

We ate sitting side by side, gazing at the video screen. It’s so hard to relax without something to look at.  The screen was showing a sunset over some southern island.  The camera didn’t move, so it was pretty much like an utravista.
‘Terminal Boredom’, p.193

Here, TV is most definitely the drug of the nation, and surprisingly, the nation is doing its best to up the supply, even offering brain implants to make people watch, and enjoy, it more.

‘Terminal Boredom’ is a clever story that actually seems fairly prescient, depicting a depressing future (our present?) where many people shun social contact, and screens are preferred to face-to-face interaction.  There are definite shades of Yōko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo in the contrast between the listless younger generation and their energetic parents, along with a well-executed dark twist.  You see, when people don’t care much about their own lives, they definitely won’t care about others, and a violent scene half-way through the story provides just a hint of what’s to come.

Terminal Boredom is a collection I enjoyed, but it does have its weak points.  The hype was for something ground-breaking, shocking, punk lit, and I’m not convinced that’s really the case.  Compared to writers such as Ryū Murakami (e.g. Coin Locker Babies) or Tomoyuki Hoshino (especially Lonely Hearts Killer and Me), Suzuki doesn’t always come off well, meaning I’m not convinced the book lives up to some of the praise it’s been getting.

Still, at its best it’s entertaining, and I suspect many readers will enjoy this a lot more than I do.  In its day, it was probably a clever look at a depressing future, but today it can be seen more as a description of what’s just around the corner.  Perhaps that’s the most impressive aspect to Terminal Boredom – many of the ideas in her stories might well be reality in a matter of years…

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