[20 August 2007]
Within Japan, Yasutaka Tsutsui is fairly well known, particularly in science fiction, although his work is by no means limited to the genre. He has won several national awards as well as the recognition of the French government for his work in the literary arts. While several of Tsutsui’s novels and short story collections have been translated into French, only one collection (to my knowledge, based on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk listings), What the Maid Saw: Eight Psychic Tales, has been translated into English. Stepping in to remedy the situation is London’s Alma Books, which has recently published a new collection of Tsutsui’s short stories, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, translated into English by Andrew Driver. Alma will continue with the English translation of one of Tsutsui’s novels, Hell, to be published in the UK this fall.
The fictions in Salmonella Men on Planet Porno combine elements of sci-fi, metafiction, satire, surrealism, and screwball comedy to mixed but always provocative effects. While Tsutsui’s disregard for political correctness is at times refreshing, many of the stories in Planet Porno are angering, bewildering, or both. There’s a mean streak of misogyny that runs almost throughout the collection and tends to distract from everything else going on around it. A prime example is “The World is Tilting”, a story about an island built by and for women that is in the midst of total collapse thanks to—wait for it—female idiocy. In other stories, Tsutsui’s businessmen deeply resent their materialistic, selfish wives and/or their wives set out to kill them (“Bad for the Heart”). While some of this sexism serves a satirical purpose—in “Bad for the Heart”, ultimately the joke’s on the husband—most of it is pretty infuriatingly dismissive of women’s experiences and lives. Certainly an argument could be made that the book’s sexism is intended to indict or illuminate the sexism pervading Japanese culture, but Tsutsui’s misogyny is so gleefully written that such an argument would be hard to take seriously.
Despite my offense at the ideologies prescribed by many of Tsutsui’s stories, I do appreciate the author’s originality and embrace of the politically incorrect. The title story is a terrific example of Tsutsui’s deftness at combining meticulously thought-out alternate worlds with a good dose of irreverent slapstick. The story imagines another planet (nicknamed Planet Porno), the flora and fauna of which have reverse-evolved from alien hippies and so all have sexually motivated physiques, e.g., fondleweed—“Run! Run or be fondled!” screams a character at one point. The main characters are research scientists who have set out on a mission to discover how to treat a woman pregnant by a penisparrow; when they are not avoiding the many creatures who would like nothing more than to molest them, the scientists fill most of the story’s pages with dialogue referencing Freud, Jung, and Darwin. The story is then nicely balanced between action, absurdity, and intellectual gravitas. Moreover, Tsutsui does an excellent job pitting attitudes about sex against one another: one of the scientists finds everything obscene, while another character is seen as perverted for enjoying sex as much as he does. In the end, neither of them come out as more noble or correct—it’s simply that one person will be appreciated more in one environment, and the other in another.
When Tsutsui veers away from science fiction, he most often chooses satire and surrealism—fitting, since both are more ‘literary’ methodologies for achieving the goals of science fiction. One of the most disturbing, and disturbingly familiar, satirical stories in the collection is “The Very Edge of Happiness”, which (along with “Commuter Army”) reads like George Saunders at his most unsubtle. A generic businessman is living in a kind of hell, where his wife deceives herself into happiness through material objects and his relationship with her is devoid of any genuinely positive emotion. The story follows him through a few slice-of-life episodes, including one that takes place at the bank, where he watches a seemingly ordinary woman yell at her son for several minutes, then beat him to death with an ashtray. Later, on a long weekend, the man drives his wife and son to the seaside for a short holiday. But the seaside is so crowded that they must leave their car in the midst of a sea of cars and walk to the beach, where the mass of people, all so determined to enjoy themselves, pack into the water, which is “glistening slimily with human fat” and quickly becomes a death trap. Tsutsui fills in the story with brushes of dark humor and thankfully avoids mocking his characters, as he does to mixed effect in the majority of the rest of the collection.
Elsewhere, Tsutsui’s sense of humor is somewhat crude to my sensibilities—I prefer the darkest of Brit-style humor, but those who appreciate slapstick a la the Marx Brothers will likely find punches rather than groaners. However, even in stories where the humor goes awry (for me, at least), other elements anchor down the narrative. The surrealism and absurdity of “The Dabba Dabba Tree”, for instance, in which those who are not asleep enter and participate in the erotic dreams of those asleep, are interesting enough to forgive the cheesy screwball-comedy confusion of the dialogue. And the unique twist on the usual time-machine motif in “Don’t Laugh” more than compensates for a joke that goes on far too long.
As in most story collections, Planet Porno contains a few wholly original ideas, several well-written if mediocre stories, and a few duds. Here, the original ones are pretty darn original and the mediocre ones read like Borges ripoffs—not the worst you can do. Tsutsui’s certainly not everyone’s bag, but his voice is idiosyncratic enough to garner a cult following. Whether he’ll eventuallly become the Roberto Bolano to Murakami’s Garcia Marquez is anyone’s guess; either way, the world of Japanese literature in English translation just got that much bigger.