Four years ago this month, my friend Karlynne – in the middle of a long string of messages complaining about Los Angeles, about men, about graduate school – mentioned some 1980s lesbian separatist utopian science fiction from Japan that she had seen referenced in the footnote of an academic article. That was the first time I heard of Izumi Suzuki. An initial search of her name turned up details on a 1995 biopic by Kōji Wakamatsu. Alas, my hunt for the film itself led only to an anime about giant robots that bears the same title. Google image searches presented poor reproductions of Nobuyoshi Araki portraits; they’d have the grainy blur of newsprint, or a glare of light would be bouncing from the curve of a page, as someone had taken a photo of a book.
My curiosity was running incandescent, but I’d come up against the hard edge of my capabilities. A colleague recommended I reach out to the Asian American Writer’s Workshop. Perhaps someone over there would be familiar with Suzuki’s work and be able to enlighten me. They could not. But our contact there did suggest that I write to Sam Bett. At first Sam was clueless as me, but in his initial (and far more accomplished) research he saw something, too. And if not for what he saw, and for the crack team he assembled, and for the passion and verve they brought to an exhaustive study of Suzuki and her singular body of work, we’d not be here.
Suzuki published her final story thirty-five years ago and died shortly afterwards. Why read her now? She signals many things – technological, societal and cultural – that have since come to pass, and many more we should pray don’t but to focus on how accurate her speculations were is to miss much of the colour and charm. The stories are largely urban; scenes are set in bars, nightclubs and cafes. The backdrop might be futuristic but the milieu is the Tokyo underground post-1968: radical, punky and appealingly degenerate. It’s the Japan on show in Wakamatsu’s early films, in which he captures ‘the melancholia of defeat and the sexual micropolitics’ of the era. Wakamatsu had directed Suzuki in several of his 1970s films so perhaps it was inevitable he’d make Endless Waltz, an adaptation of a 1993 novel about Suzuki and her husband, Kaoru Abe. Their daughter, an orphaned teenager at the time, took extreme exception to the novel and sued the author. With the knowledge that we’re stepping on uncertain, uneven ground, it’s worth considering the film for a moment.
From the get-go, Endless Waltz is intense and supremely distressing. It’s full of wonderfully turned-out people (the wardrobe is glorious) smoking in bars and discussing politics and art. The discordant jazz on the soundtracks sets you on edge and leaves you waiting for the sudden swipes of brutal violence that sometimes come and sometimes don’t.
‘Earning your living by disclosing your private life is despicable’, says Kaoru Abe in one scene. He has a sheath of pages in his hand and he’s standing atop a dining table in his bare feet. He thinks he recognises something in the story he has read. This is a prelude to one of those bursts of violence.
But is anything of her life being disclosed in these stories, and if so where? Is Suzuki’s voice that of the confused and heartsick young woman, or the unruly speaking chair that’s passing judgement on her romantic life? Is she the traumatised teen or the grandmother in an immodest short skirt with a stack of contraband Rolling Stones records in her cupboard? Is it even wise to wonder?
In an early acquisitions meeting, when all I had read of Suzuki’s writing was a scrap of a sample translation, I pitched her to my colleagues as being ‘like Lucia Berlin but with spaceships’. As it happens, spaceships are thin in the air in this book but, as in Berlin’s work, the stories are disconcertingly direct and conversational, and dense with details of lives lived intensely. Perhaps it’s enough that the stories feel alive, and there’s little need to pin scraps of second-and-thirdhand biography to them.
I want to read fiction by writers whose imagination outstrips mine, writers who can pick up on details I won’t see. I want to read stories by people who live larger lives and make grander mistakes. I want a taste of something that’s strange to me. These seven stories, which offer a selection of some of Izumi Suzuki’s best-known science fiction writing, satisfy all those wants of mine. A second collection of stories, Love < Death, which will have a somewhat different focus, is coming down the road. And beyond that there are novels and essays galore. I hope you get the taste, too.