Izumi Suzuki, Terminal Boredom (2021)

Author: Izumi Suzuki

Title: Terminal Boredom

Format: E-book

Pages: 240

Series: –

Other: Short Story Collection

Don’t let the publication date fool you: Izumi Suzuki committed suicide in 1986, at the age of 36, and her SF dystopian short stories were all written in the period between mid- 1970s and mid-1980s. Her works were both highly controversial and influential, diametrically different from mainstream, and the publication of Terminal Boredom, a collection of seven of her most famous stories, is a good opportunity for the English-speaking readers to get acquainted with Suzuki’s world. A nice introduction has been recently published in ArtReview – Daniel Joseph, one of the stories’ translators, succinctly but informatively presents both the author and her career here.

Suzuki creates a very intriguing world, indeed. Deeply dystopian, populated by unhappy people bound in equal measures by the societal norms, their own fantasies and their fears, it features green-skinned aliens, potent drugs, elaborate medical procedures designed to deal with very mundane relationship and psychological problems, and even a post-apocalyptic matriarchal society where men are held in prison-like structures, kept alive only for procreation purposes, like drones in a beehive. No one is truly happy; some have forgotten what happiness even means. The suffocating mood of ennui seems to arise from a number of moods and feelings: social constraints, regrets, inability to feel empathy, bad life choices haunting the present and the future, and the overwhelming boredom all conspire to create a nauseating lack of will to live. The mood, the feeling of these stories is prescient: four decades on, we deal with the very issues so clearly intuited by Suzuki – from the crippling emotional numbness among individuals to the aggressive, grasping behaviour of societies.

While Suzuki introduced many typical SF tropes into her works, from humanlike aliens and interplanetary travel to nearly miraculous technological advancement, she didn’t pay them much attention: they are there as props in the everyday, banal yet tragic drama of the protagonists. Indeed, the main strength of her stories lies in this intimate focus on the characters: their flaws and vices, their dreams and fears, their unhappy relationships marked by lack of understanding. The main theme of her stories is alienation; and while she didn’t say break any new ground in this area, what she did say is still important, and profound – maybe even more so today. Some of her stories seem indeed prescient: the problems already arising in the 70’s, noticed by the sensitive, non-normative few like Suzuki, in our times became widespread societal maladies.

I must say the stories’ mood affected me a little: the pervasive ennui, unhappiness, despair hidden beneath a very thin surface of the bustle of everyday life are depicted in a thoroughly realistic way. There is a disconnect between Suzuki’s characters and their life; there is a feeling of desolation that contradicts John Donne’s optimism: in Suzuki’s world every man is an island, separate and isolated, and hopelessly alone.

As usual, below is a short rundown of each story with their separate scores.

Women and Women 8/10

A post-apocalyptic matriarchal society where men are delegated to the role of drones. Subversive, ironic, painful – Suzuki pulls no punches here, deftly striking all sides of the conflict. The constrictive nature of gender stereotypes and socio-biological roles is examined with more whimsy than logic, but the pain feels genuine.

You May Dream 7/10

This one was weird, with an extremely unlikable and talkative protagonist helplessly entangled in a toxic relationship. It’s short and seemingly underdeveloped, and yet it has moments of uncanny moodiness and venom. I wish it was a bit more fleshed out, but the main idea of this story is at once creepy and poignant, and hard to forget.

The Night Picnic 5/10

The weakest story of the collection, albeit the most overtly satirical one, focused on various stereotypes associated with living in a modern society. It hinges on a twist that’s no longer surprising, and it gives off strong Bradbury vibes. Unfortunately, I have recently read Bradbury’s short story collection and his are much better.

That Old Seaside Club 8.5/10

As Joseph writes, this story is a precursor (actually, he writes of prefiguration, but to me this term has definite religious undertones, so I’ll stick with mine) of a popular Black Mirror episode, San Junipero. Can new, wondrous technology solve age-old problems?

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes 6/10

 A drug whose side-effects include extremely accelerated ageing; a junkie and her partner caught in the loop of egotism and self-disgust, addiction, and loneliness.

Forgotten 7/10

A subversive love story in which the protagonists seem to love only themselves. A commentary on colonialism and memory, and on the acute alienation stemming from inability to fully comprehend and commune with another – even a telepathic, nearly immortal alien.

Terminal Boredom 9/10

In a future society of overabundance people have everything but want nothing. An opioid crisis renders the younger generations completely inane; bereft of any values and emotions they are unable to ascribe meaning to anything and even forget to eat. The society is held together only by this addiction: the governing institutions keep in power precisely through the constant sedation of the masses, devising new, improved ways of rendering people apathetic and directionless. I won’t spoil the gloriously creepy ending, but I have a feeling that this story influenced, directly or indirectly, a few controversial pop-cultural works.

While the average score for the stories is just over 7.2, in the case of Suzuki’s anthology the whole becomes something more than sum of its parts; the collection in its entirety gives off a unique vibe, and it doesn’t hurt that it ends on a strong note: the titular story, Terminal Boredom, was for me the best of them all.

That said, however, I must end my review with two caveats: these stories are old, and their age is noticeable. What was unique and ground-breaking in the 70’s now, four decades on, has turned into something more obvious and at times tropey. Secondly, Suzuki’s stories are focused predominantly on creating a certain mood and exploring mostly psychological ideas of alienation, addiction, exhaustion; there is barely any action, worldbuilding, or even character development. In short, they are vignettes, not full histories – psychological portraits frozen in time. I read them with interest and appreciation, if not exactly enjoyment: they do tend to dampen one’s mood.

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher Verso through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

Score: 8/10

32 thoughts on “Izumi Suzuki, Terminal Boredom (2021)

  1. I didn’t know this author, so thanks for your review. I’m not sure if I’ll read the collection, but I will keep an eye out for the titular story “Terminal Boredom”. Some of the Japanese authors I’ve read seem to have a real knack for writing about loneliness, sadness, desperation, and other cheery topics. Tortured artists or very lonely people? It’s something I’m curious to look into.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome! 😀
      I keep wondering if that sense of loneliness in Japanese culture comes from the culturally traumatic processes of modernization and Westernization after WWII. Their centuries-long culture and social structure have been dramatically changed then, undermining everything the Japanese thought about themselves. And social scientists since Ruth Benedict point out to the differences in Eastern and Western culture, especially with regards to the dimension of individualism-collectivism. So I’m wondering if that sudden loss of anchoring tradition, identity and rapid, dramatic change of dominant worldview wasn’t one of the main causes of that social depression. But it’s all just a conjecture as I’m absolutely no specialist in this matter – do you have any observations on that phenomenon, Wakizashi?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s a tough one. I haven’t researched it enough to give a credible comment. One thought/conjecture is that after the post WWII Westernization, the Japanese people lost a part of their national identity which could have caused a form of “social depression” in some cases. Everything they were taught/told to believe in was no longer acceptable, so they had to completely rewrite their social programming…? I don’t know. It’s a fascinating topic, but one I’m unqualified to comment on. Thanks for the stimulation, Ola!!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for your review! I just read some articles about the author (thanks for the link!) and Japanese SF in general.
    From what I‘ve understood, I‘m reluctant to find her „influential“. I guess, you mean for Japanese SF? But even there: no awards, only a footnote in a SF overview (which is written by a man, probably biased). I wonder if female authors really had an impact in Japan‘s 1970s.
    What a self-destructive life! I can’t imagine how that must have been for her daughter, orphaned at the age of 15.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! 😀

      Well, I agree that she’s all but forgotten now – but back then she was actually influential enough to have been translated to English which from what I understand was not common. I think her influence was perhaps limited in scope but quite deep in places.
      That self-destructiveness is evident in the stories – interestingly enough, I read about the author only after I read them.

      Liked by 1 person

            1. Hmm not sure it will appeal to Bart as much as it appeals to me 😂 But I’m currently slowly reading du Sautoy’s What We Cannot Know and I can wholeheartedly recommend it as a humble yet very optimistic view of human capability for discovery and understanding of the world 🙂

              Liked by 2 people

              1. To be fair, if I hadn’t watched DBZ at the age of 14, I wouldn’t look at it now. That Du Sautoy book sounds interesting. Reminds me of the Lex Fridman podcasts on YouTube, his interview with Roger Penrose etc.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. I’m a little older than 14 and I love this manga to bits! 😁 But most of the people to whom I even dare to reveal my delight in DB look at me strangely… 😅
                  Do give a chance to du Sautoy’s book – it’s not an easy read but very rewarding!

                  Like

  3. Very intriguing indeed, even if it sounds like the kind of reading material one should approach with great caution: considering the overall mood of the stories you describe, I’m hardly surprised at learning about the author’s choice of ending her life, and I think that one would require a serene mindset to appreciate these stories, the kind of mindset that these days is attainable only through great effort… Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 🙂

      Yes, maybe this collection could be more appreciated in happier times. It’s very interesting, but definitely more than a little depressing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoy your reviews — considered, critical where necessary, generous in praise where it’s deserved, above all fair while being disarmingly honest — and this one was no exception. The story where the people are kept docile by opioid is interesting and tangentially still relevant, as social media, gossip columns and governments gaslight populations in the present day; all of this a corollary to the 19th-century phrase (Marx and Charles Kingsley for example) of religion being the opium or opiate of the people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for that lovely comment, Chris, if you could have seen me reading it you’d have certainly noticed my blush 😉
      The collection’s mood and themes are very timely, indeed – even prescient to some extent. This is by no means a “nice” read: depressing, yes; intriguing – that too. But far from nice 😉 Considering what is happening around us lately, with the constant empty informational stimuli attacking us from our various screens, radios, streets, etc., I’d say the organized religion in its capacity as an opiate had at least the doubtful privilege of being consistent, and future-oriented. Today, though, we are mostly facing ephemeral chaos, addicted to stimuli coming from unknown and predominantly untrustworthy sources, valid only for a minute or two.
      Ha! I definitely need to find something more cheery for my next read! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never heard of the author, but this sounds interesting! Psychological portraits frozen in time is just my thing. If well done, there doesn’t have to be a hint of a plot or action, I would happily meander around in the heads of these characters (so to speak…). However, it doesn’t exactly sound like a cheerful collection, so I would have to be in the right mood to really enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, decidedly not cheerful – alienation is the key word here, I believe. But it’s worth reading, in the right mood. I’d be very interested to read your thoughts about it one day!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, that’s one aspect, certainly. The other is that to me, if I were to compare Suzuki’s stories to stories by other, Western authors, they mostly resemble Bradbury’s short work. A very depressing Bradbury, but Bradbury nonetheless – with the focus on relationships, misunderstandings, problems of connectedness, the impact of modern culture on individuals…

          Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve never heard of her before, I think but it does sound like she conveys her near-perfect understanding of “individual”-level dystopia through these stories. Such high praise definitely merits investigation on my end. I’ll keep an eye out for this collection. I have to admit that cover is quite scary for some reason.

    P.S. I think my comment on your review of Baker’s sequel was left to float away into space. Maybe it was too polite for your taste? 😀 😀 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right, Lashaan, the very personal feelings of despair and quiet discontent and inability to connect with others fuel these stories and give them a sense of realism. These stories are not perfect, but they are certainly impactful.

      The cover is pretty unusual, and I only “got” it when I read Suzuki was an actress who didn’t shy away from pink movies 😅

      Yes, too polite! I thought it was written by an impostor, so unlike your usual style, Lashaan! 😜😜😜 Sorry about that, for some reason it didn’t show in my notifications at all! 🙄 I’m off to respond!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. buriedinprint

    Given the themes you’ve described and the fact that readers of this edition of her stories are made aware of her death by her own hand, it seems like it could be hard to separate the darkness in the stories from hypothesizing about the author’s life and her own sense of despair. This is a collection I’d like to explore, carefully selecting the reads surrounding it. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It seems I kind of spoiled this for you – I’ve learned of her fate only after I finished reading the stories, but in this review I chose to reveal that at the very beginning. It is indeed difficult to separate the author’s life from their work – in this case maybe more than in some others.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I’ll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on this collection when you have a chance to check it out!

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s