This Bad Girl

‘Hit Parade of Tears: Stories’ By Izumi Suzuki

VERSO, APRIL 2023, 288 PP.

THIS NEWLY TRANSLATED collection of Izumi Suzuki’s short stories first published more than forty years ago is jaunty, odd, violent, femme-centric, funny—but what strikes me most is its freshness. A few charming period details (the presence of a Walkman, cassette tapes, a rotary phone, the novelty of color TV) dotted here and there allow the reader to set the action in the ’80s, but the stories, a mixtape of moods from realistic to surrealistic, glide right into today.

As modern as the stories is Suzuki herself. The dusky, grunge-chic portrait of Suzuki by the notorious erotic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki on the cover says it all. Suzuki on a low futon, bare uncrossed legs marked with a few blemishes, platform Mary Janes the color and gloss of a candy apple, cleavage barely held in place by a spaghetti-strapped camisole accessorized with a faintly bedraggled slip of a white scarf knotted around her neck. Under the severe Louise Brooks bob and panda-like eye make-up, her lips (rouged and full) part slightly as she faces us, neither inviting nor repelling, just a touch of cool, sexy defiance. You don’t know if she will take you in her mouth or slap your face if you dare to approach her. It’s quite a picture.

Besides her work as a muse, Suzuki was an actor in pink films (Japanese soft-core) and theatre, a writer, and model. In her private life, she had a child and a chaotic marriage with the avant-garde musician Kaoru Abe. He died of an accidental overdose in 1978. Eight years later, Suzuki committed suicide, at thirty-six. Though this bohemian rock ‘n’ roll life may sound somehow familiar, or even cliché, the backdrop of the world Suzuki lived in is not known to most American readers. She grew up in a Japan still reeling from defeat in WWII and the literal and figurative fallout of atom bombs, engaged in an uneasy relationship with the West. Her generation somewhat perversely, obsessively embraced Western pop culture, capitalism, even the prep style of the Ivy League WASPs. Suzuki’s writing is peppered with pop song references (rivaling Bret Easton Ellis), and bankers and businessmen bragging about money as Japan surges toward its eventual position as an economic powerhouse.

The stories can as easily cast a feeling of malaise or playfully punch you in the face, as with Suzuki’s wacky breakout story “Trial Witch,” her first to be published, reproduced herein. Funny in the style of the ’60s TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched, “Trial Witch” concerns a cheating husband whose resentful wife discovers, to her surprise, that a trio of witches have conferred magical powers upon her. During their confrontation, she turns her husband into a baby, a monkey, a bull, Superman, and so on, until finally, in a fit of anger, she renders him a “living, breathing piece of jerky” (i.e., dried and salted fish, ubiquitous in pantries across Asia). Just then, her magical powers expire. Oops.

Suzuki’s protagonists are women, adolescent to middle-aged, who are either in search of something (which is sometimes unclear, even to them, but they yearn) or more often, managing relationships with men (seducing them, indulging them, punishing them, taking advantage of them, commanding them, and, at times, attacking and murdering them). Perhaps because she so sardonically frames absurd sexual politics, Suzuki has been hailed as a feminist pioneer of science fiction, one often compared to Ursula K. Le Guin. I am not so sure that she is correctly identified as such. It’s true that most of her work was published in science fiction magazines, the result of a chance encounter with the writer Taku Mayumura, who suggested she read some sci-fi, and who then introduced her to the editor of S-F Magazine, the first outlet to buy a story. Before that first story, Suzuki authored plays and wrote for literary journals—high art, no pay. But there was already a penniless artist in the family (her husband), and someone had to pay the bills. Women are pragmatic.

The backdrop of the world Suzuki lived in is not known to most American readers.

More than sci-fi writer, to my eye, Suzuki was a bleakly funny surrealist. The Surrealist art movement, like Dadaism, developed to counter the numb factor after the atrocities of World War I; verisimilitude was not up to the challenge of conveying the era’s horror nor the internal life of its humans. Surrealism, as art, meant there were no boundaries, no censorship. It expressed the unconscious, synthesizing dream and reality into something weightier and transformative—a super-reality. Suzuki’s writing—or its “sci-fi” aspect—is itself rooted in the trauma and associated fears of the atom bomb, as was Godzilla, the radioactive monster. Her story “Memory of Water,” for instance, refers to nuclear annihilation explicitly, portraying it as a never-ending empty limbo: “A mushroom cloud rose up beyond the horizon. That’s how the final war ended. From now on, there would be no more time.” Another story, “After Everything,” conjures a full-blown Daliesque dreamscape in which “snakes emerge from the ocean. The hard sky glitters a deep, uniform blue. Beneath its massive, perfect dome, deformed snakes like antediluvian lifeforms crawl up onto the land. The sun, perfectly still in the dead center of the sky, is a single rotten eye.”

In a way, it is the drugs, whether recreational or pharmaceutical, that most reveal this as the work of a surrealist artist and not a realist geeking out on science and technology. In this world, as in Suzuki’s own, whether something is sane and real or insane and imagined, is not always clear. Drugs aid these characters’ superhuman attributes just as they, I suspect, played a big role in Suzuki’s own rocker-chick life. The 180-year-old husband in “Hit Parade of Tears,” for instance, has taken “some new drug he’d got from a pharmacist friend, which had given him wild visions and thrown him into hysterics.”

In “The Covenant,” a husband believes he has ESP and is receiving urgent missives from a beleaguered outer space “savior” who is “desperately seeking aid from other planets.” He tells his wife, “I want to find a way to help them. Okay, here I go again,” and tries to focus his awareness to connect. She wonders if “maybe it wasn’t ESP but simple delusion. His mental state was very unstable.” Sanity is no blessing, though; if anything, she feels excluded having “no such gifts. It made her feel somehow left out. What a drag.” And then there is the violent absurdity of a child’s death in “The Walker,” which could be taken straight from a Buñuel film:

Just then, a car came barreling down the road and ran over their child with decorous aplomb, as if this were the sole reason for its existence. His severed head rolled across the ground and stopped at his parents’ feet.

“How lovely,” I said.

The girl laughed.

Everyone opened the stone voids of their mouths and laughed. A surrealist, Suzuki doesn’t glorify reality.

Reality can be a drag.

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