Izumi Suzuki (1949-86) was a writer, actor, and counterculture figure. Though Suzuki is considered a pioneer of Japanese science fiction, Terminal Boredom is the first English translation of her work. It was released by Verso in April of this year with translations by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan.
The seven stories collected in Terminal Boredom explore a series of speculative worlds, from a matriarchal utopia to a world devoid of human beings. The stories are both disparate and cohesive, diverging and intersecting to establish a fresh and complex whole. Despite distinctions, certain core concepts—fixations on temporality, barrenness, isolation, and decay—recur throughout the stories.
In Frank O’Connor’s study of the short-story form, The Lonely Voice, he argues that short stories tend to focus on “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society” (The Lonely Voice, p. 19). This is absolutely true for Terminal Boredom. For the most part, Terminal Boredom does not contain large-scale portraits of the dystopian worlds in which its stories are set. Instead, it features a series of fleeting images that constantly gesture towards the bleak psychological state of the people who occupy these worlds. The societies themselves, sick and decaying, are always viewed through the eyes of alienated figures who wander absently, searching for escape. This anchor is one of the work’s greatest strengths.
The characters in the collection are plagued by constant anxiety about the degradation of life. Alongside this, and closely intertwined, is a persistent fear that humanity is being eradicated. The eradication of humanity here is not so much the literal extinction of human beings but the erasure or decay of that which makes them human. This is connected to another of the volume’s recurring themes: the idea that simplification drives degradation. Characters fear that the complexity of life is being worn down by the trajectory of social progression.
At all times, these characters act in relation to their societies; however, social structures often seem distant, unaddressed, and unacknowledged. Instead, characters tend to deal with the consequences and implications of these structures in isolation. Their lives are consumed by immediate conflicts which seem to shield fundamental issues from critique. Even when certain characters indicate that they are well attuned to the impacts of social structures, they seem isolated in their awareness.
In “Women and Women,” for example, the narrative is explicitly framed by the utopian world Suzuki establishes. In this world, men are contained in “Gender Exclusion Terminal Occupancy Zones,” which keep women safe from violence. Throughout, the narrator directly relates her experiences to the overall structure of this society. But, she is still an outlaw, isolated at the fringe. As she states towards the end of the story, “To doubt this world is a crime. Everyone believes implicitly in this world, in this reality. I and I alone … know the great secret of this existence” (p. 33). Though not as poetic as other works in the collection—the writing feels stilted, at times—“Women and Women” is conceptually strong and serves to produce a framework for reading the following tales. The queer utopia created in the work is quickly destabilized; its rational, mechanistic solutions are unable to account for the complexity of life. Still, the logic that drives the existence of gender-based ghettos is amply demonstrated, producing a troubling and complicated story.
The characters in Terminal Boredom, then, consistently find themselves in worlds entirely natural to them but which somehow feel alien. These worlds are natural in the sense that they are the worlds that the characters have inherited; but they seem unnatural in the sense that the characters feel displaced in them. This is reminiscent of another theory advanced by Frank O’Connor, that one of the most characteristic aspects of the short story is “an intense awareness of human loneliness” (The Lonely Voice, p. 19).
From front to back, Terminal Boredom drips with human loneliness. This loneliness is not only born from literal isolation—even relationships between people are neutralized. The second story, “You May Dream,” establishes this in its first three sentences: “My eyes met hers through the glass. She was sitting against the wall, gaze fixed on the front window for who knows how long, waiting. Even when she saw me, she didn’t so much as wave” (p. 35). Throughout the collection, characters seem unable to communicate. Even when no physical obstacle seems to exist, emotional barrenness obstructs their ability to interact meaningfully. Relationships are perverted and distant. Here, the glass establishes a barrier between the narrator and her friend. The transparency of this barrier does not make it less obstructive but seems to heighten the disconnect. Even when their eyes meet, the connection is not made.
The narrator is not immune to this emotional barrenness. When she meets this same friend inside for coffee, the friend attempts to connect with her. The narrator is unable and unwilling. To her, their conversation is “a series of reactions, reflex responses” (p. 37). She only wants to give the responses that will make their conversation as easy as possible. She wants to avoid engaging on a deeper level, particularly when difficult topics begin to arise.
It is not insignificant that “You May Dream” opens with the narrator’s friend waiting absently. This is another concept that persists throughout the collection. For instance, one of the most memorable stories, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” opens with the line: “I was just killing time” (p. 123). Framed by the title of the book, Terminal Boredom, the sentence takes on particular significance. Characters long for time to accelerate or slow. They wait around for something to happen—be it catastrophe or salvation.
In “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” characters are haunted by figures from the past and, in a sense, the future. The point of view slips between narrators, who are both keenly aware of the fact that time is passing. One of the characters works at an arcade, the other is a customer; they have a past that intertwines. The latter is killing time with nothing to do. The former is being killed by time, degrading physically and psychologically. Though the story is highly speculative, an anchor of realism exists: “My body is aging for real,” one of the narrators says. “An unbelievable amount. Sometimes when I decide to put on some foundation, to my dismay it gathers around my wrinkles; no matter how well I try to apply it, the foundation just ends up outlining them” (p. 126). This is pointed and familiar, and also serves to ground the speculative aspect of the work.
Of the arcade, the same narrator says: “There is no day or night here. Boys and girls wearing fluttery clothes come in hordes and all play alone.” This is immediately followed up by a seemingly disconnected thought: “Time might begin to pass at a frightening pace again. It’s why I incessantly keep checking the clock on the wall” (p. 126). This is a bridge, enabling the concepts of temporality, isolation, and decay to concentrate powerfully. Further still, when the two narrators attempt to interact, emotional barrenness prevents it. Of all the stories, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” might convey the essence of the collection most potently.
For a number of reasons, Terminal Boredom cannot be attributed exclusively to Suzuki. For one, it is not a translation of a collection constructed by the author. Instead, it is a new selection of stories from a larger collection (契約 鈴木いづみSF全集; or, Covenant: The Complete SF of Izumi Suzuki). It should also be remembered, of course, that the selected stories are not Suzuki’s original works. They are translations of them. As a result, the stories included are not actually Suzuki’s texts. By adapting Suzuki’s stories and constructing a collection, placing these adaptations in relation to one another, the author-translators of Terminal Boredom have created a new work entirely. Critique must be undertaken accordingly. Terminal Boredom is not a work by Izumi Suzuki but is an adaptation of Suzuki’s work.
Translation is an act of re-creation. A translated story is a reconstruction based upon the translator’s interpretation of the text. When reading a translation, the reader’s faith is placed in the translator’s judgement and ability. As much as their linguistic ability, the reader places faith in the translator’s literary ability. As literature is not only concerned with conveying information, the translator also has to attempt to replicate the poetic effect produced in the original work. This means that translation cannot be undertaken merely on a surface level. When translating a work, attention must be given to the play between the words and the potential literary significance that this play creates. The translator must analyze the structure of the text and attempt to decipher the ways in which it evokes an emotional response. In Walter Benjamin’s words, a translation must attempt to discover “that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.”
The concept of translation and interpretation appears explicitly in “Night Picnic,” the third story in the book. In this story, “Earthlings” are apparently extinct. A family of non-humans have convinced themselves that they are humans who have somehow ended up on a foreign planet, separated from the rest of society. They study media and attempt to replicate what they see, striving to become the model human family. However, rather than appearing human, the characters take on a performative mishmash of distorted habits and behaviors that only loosely align with those of the human world. Like the other stories, the decay of humanness is ever-present. The notion of alienated figures existing at the fringes of society becomes literal. Isolation is overwhelming—in fact, the society that these aliens cling to so desperately no longer exists outside of memory. It cannot be reached, no matter how hard they try to replicate it. The translation is inadequate—the echo of humanity is lost.
Viewed in isolation, as a more or less original work, Terminal Boredom is a powerful collection. I cannot judge the quality of its translation on linguistic grounds. In literary terms, the prose that is presented can waver: at certain times, it feels stilted or stale; at other times, it is poetic and poignant. At all times, however, the writing carries an undercurrent of loneliness, isolation, and decay. Characters wander through the pages, desperately searching for escape, filled with anxiety, as life—that “fresh and complex entity”—dries out and threatens to disappear. It is this fixation that ties the stories in the collection together and provides it with its heart and soul. Lonely voices cry out, and their ache reverberates long after the book is closed. Overall, Terminal Boredom is a strong, unsettling collection.