Hit Parade of Tears by Izumi Suzuki

A second collection of Suzuki’s stories, following on from last year’s Terminal Boredom, this book contains her breakthrough SF story “Trial Witch” — a title which wrongfooted me, because those words inevitably conjure the phrase “witch trials”, whereas in this case it means “apprentice witch on her trial period”. It’s the comical story of a woman who, out of the blue, is told she’s been selected by the League of Witches to become one of their number. She’s granted magical powers for a limited period, but finds her main ability is to transform her husband into a variety of new forms, which she either can’t, or doesn’t want to (he’s unfaithful), undo by the time the trial ends. It’s fun to imagine this story as the image of Suzuki herself, self-trialling herself as a writer in the fantastical vein. Only, unlike with the story’s protagonist, Suzuki turned out to have, with this story, won herself a place as a writer of SF in Japan (though not, it turns out, to have been allowed into the all-male SF Writers Club of Japan).

The main feeling I came away from in my review of Terminal Boredom was of emotional disconnection in human relationships, edging its way into emotional disconnection from oneself. With some of the stories of Hit Parade of Tears, that aspect is ramped up, with sometimes quite extreme self-alienation being a predominant theme in the longer, more serious tales.

That feeling of distanced relationships is still there, as in this, from the opening story, “My Guy”, about a young woman who finds herself picking up a man who says he’s an alien from another world:

“I guess I’d never really been in love, or even learned what was involved in ‘liking’ someone. This could be why I always seemed to wind up in relationships defined by mutual distaste and an inability to walk away.”

The alien man tells her things are the same on his world:

“Back home, everyone starts making love, so to speak, once they reach adulthood, except only with the partner that the government assigns them. Then they spend the rest of their lives as a happy couple who never fight. But that isn’t what you’d call ‘love’ now, is it…”

But elsewhere in the book — in what I feel is probably a later tale — Suzuki seems to have hit on something of a solution, only a messily human one, when in the story “I’ll Never Forget” she presents us with an ever-squabbling-and-making-it-up couple, who keep their relationship fuelled by the failures of previous ones:

“They were a strange pair, these two. They each prodded at some past infidelity, real or not, and that’s what formed the basis of their relationship.”

Which leads to the realisation:

“…love isn’t like a house you can just kick back and live in once it’s completed. No, it gets more worn and tattered day by day. So unless you keep on making it up, day by day, it disappears in all but name.”

But it’s the alienation from oneself that dominates Hit Parade of Tears. In what may be the longest tale, “Hey, It’s a Love Psychedelic”, a woman, initially called Reico, then Reyko, then Reiko, finds herself transplanted to what seem to be alternative versions of her own life. In each, she’s aware that things are wrong, usually through her knowledge of popular culture — an album that should have been out, or a brand of cigarettes that shouldn’t be available yet. The time-stream of her life is being manipulated by someone, taking her further away from the life she knew: whereas in the first section of this tale, she’s actively involved in the 1960s/70s rock music scene, by the last section she’s merely reading about it in a trashy novel called Groupie.

Some Japanese covers to Suzuki’s books

“The Covenant” starts with a somewhat useless-seeming husband figure who claims to be telepathic and in contact with aliens from another world, who he somehow helps with his mental powers. Then we meet a girl whose self-alienation starts out as an emotional self-disconnection similar to other Suzuki characters:

“Akiko had been alone ever since she was a child. She’d never had friends. She’d been a taciturn, expressionless, polite child. Her good grades had made her something of a teacher’s pet, but she never cared about any of that. After many long years of resenting the fact that no one loved her, she had conceived a vague hatred for this world.”

But she comes to realise these feelings are because she is (or so she believes), an alien from another world, here on Earth to fulfil the covenant of the story’s title. She forms a friendship with another similarly outsiderish girl, and things get a bit Charles Manson-ish.

The starkest image of self-alienation, though, is in “Memory of Water”. Here, the main character is a woman whose agoraphobia has led to her being mostly cut off from the world, and barely leaving her flat. But there are inexplicable (and, to her, alarming) intrusions into even that safe space, such as phone calls from a man who seems to know her, and items of clothing she’d never wear suddenly appearing in her wardrobe. Unknown to herself, she has a second self, one who is not anxious, depressed and sick, but whose idea of a free, adventurous life is one she’s so afraid of, she has cut that whole self off to the point that it has managed to break away and live an independent life. But instead of embracing this new self, the anxious woman only retreats further.

This feeling of being linked to another person, one whose mental and physical ill-health is dragging you down, also pops up in a tale I’ve already mentioned, “I’ll Never Forget”, which is actually a sequel to the story “Forgotten” from Terminal Boredom. “Forgotten” presented us with an alien but humanlike race, the Meelians, who never forget, which is why they don’t have war on their planet. In “I’ll Never Forget”, though, we learn there’s a downside to this never forgetting, as Meelians’ emotional experiences never fade; as a result, when “their heart has exceeded its capacity”, they tend to take their own life. (Human beings, on the other hand, merely descend into “a sort of hellish torment”. Thanks.) The main character, a Meelian woman who’s on Earth to do some modelling work, finds herself unconsciously targeted by the telepathic emanations of the human woman from “Forgotten”, who loved a Meelian man, Sol, who’s now dead. Alongside this feeling of being burdened by a stream of negativity that mixes physical ill-health, depression, and a feeling of life-failure, there’s the helplessness of not being able to do anything about it. In this sense, both “I’ll Never Forget” and “Memory of Water” are quite despairing tales.

Cover by Araki

As with Terminal Boredom, there’s no indication of when the Japanese originals from Hit Parade of Tears were first published, but I’m willing to bet that “The Memory of Water” and “I’ll Never Forget” date from the end of Suzuki’s career. That feeling of being burdened by longstanding physical ill-health, as well as mental ill-health and a feeling of the failure of human relationships chimes too much with Suzuki’s biography to ignore. (And I realised I should have taken my own advice from my review of Terminal Boredom: “I’d like to read some more stories by Suzuki, though perhaps I wouldn’t read them back-to-back, as that malaise of disaffection can be hard to read too much of.”)

There are some tales in Hit Parade of Tears that escape this negativity, though. Perhaps my favourite is one of the most explicitly genre-science-fictional, “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise”, about the human crew of a spaceship exploring other planets, not for the purposes of scientific advancement — there are just too many planets out there for every one of them to be treated with such care and attention — but as part of “a get-rich-quick scheme to collect unusual animals for Earth’s leisure class”. This mismatched, flawed, and very un-military-SF crew, collect a bunch of animals from various planets, half of which die, some of which injure or poison the crew. On this planet, they find what seems to be a human baby, and their disagreements about what to do with it lead to a near mutiny. But the captain, who is equally fed-up with their mission, decides to take a new, and very un-Captain Kirk-ish solution: she says maybe they should give up and just live on this planet as they are.

It would be interesting to know when this story was written. The idea of a crew setting down on an alien planet and collecting specimens has been done in SF before, but the crew’s mismatchedness, and the detail that, back on Earth, there’s a “nerve centre linking the computers used by the various government ministries” called “MOTHER”, recalls the fact that the Nostromo’s computer is also called “Mother”, which makes me wonder if this isn’t a jokey take on Alien.

I think I like Suzuki most when she’s engaging explicitly with the sort of big ideas you find in genre SF — she inevitably has a fresh and meaningful take on them, alongside a carefree sense of humour and a wide acceptance of human foibles. But elsewhere there’s that overpowering emotional malaise and feelings of despair that just can’t be channelled into the sort of punky kicking back at society that would give this collection the life it needs. I really didn’t enjoy that aspect this time around.


Concrete Island by J G Ballard

1992 PB, art by Chris Moore

After the literary “incident” (to use the terminology of motorway signage) of Crash in 1973, 1974’s Concrete Island, in its slightness, can come across as something of a leftover, a using up of spare energies — the literary equivalent of a hubcap still trundling along the tarmac in the wake of a major collision. It’s the second volume in what has been called Ballard’s “urban disaster triptych” — the others being Crash and High-Rise (1975) — but aside from the fact it starts with a car crash and takes places in a concrete-bounded patch of wasteland, as a novel it doesn’t really share those two longer books’ future-shock levels of deadpan, maxed-out satire. Concrete Island isn’t, in the end, about the modern world, but, as with Ballard’s early, landscape-based fantasies (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), it’s about a retreat into the inner landscape of its protagonist.

The story begins with 35-year-old architect Robert Maitland emerging from a feeder tunnel adjoining the Westway/M4 [correction: A40(M), see comments] interchange when a tyre blowout throws him off the road into a triangle of long-grassed wasteland bordered on two sides by steep motorway embankments, and on the third by an impenetrable chainlink fence. Recovering from the accident, he finds his leg injured, perhaps broken, and when he struggles up the loose soil of the embankment to try to flag down a passing car, soon realises nobody’s going to stop — they’re all going too fast — and almost gets himself run over for his troubles. Retreating, exhausted and injured, he returns to the “island”, as he terms it, and starts working out how to get help, as well as how to survive on his limited resources in the meantime.

US HB, 1974, art by Paul Bacon

After a period of hunger and fever, punctuated by the constant frustration of his every attempt to signal for help, he begins to explore the island and finds it anything but barren. Beneath its long grass it’s “a labyrinth of depths and hollows”, containing the vestiges of some Edwardian terraced houses, a World War II air-raid shelter, the basement of a ruined post-war cinema, and an abandoned printer’s shop. Far from empty, the island — “this immense green creature eager to protect and guide him” — is almost alive. What’s more, he’s not its only inhabitant.

Despite its harking back to those earlier inner-landscape novels, to me there’s also a feel of hints, in Concrete Island, of new directions in Ballard’s writing. Jane Sheppard, one of the two people Maitland finds living in what he’d assumed to be a wasteland, is different from the usually cool, mature and glamorous fifties-Hollywood-style femmes fatale Ballard presents us with as the female lead/object of obsession in his fiction. Rather, she’s young, spiky, and dresses like a “cheap tart”; she swears and smokes pot. About the only thing she shares with Ballard’s usual female characters is that’s she’s clearly damaged, but unlike the overly-cool, deeply traumatised Giocondas he usually produces, Jane makes no attempt to hide it. Writing in 1980, David Pringle said this character was “the nearest thing to a ‘well-rounded’ female character in all [Ballard’s] novels”.

Another hint of something new comes when, at one point, Jane breaks into a stream-of-consciousness rant — but it turns out (from an interview reprinted in Extreme Metaphors) these passages were the result of Ballard transcribing a recording he’d made of a real-life angry outburst from his girlfriend. Nevertheless, these passages come across as a rare moment of stylistic wildness in Ballard’s usually very controlled prose, an opening up to something new.

1974 HB, art by Bill Botton

The other character on the island is Proctor, a clumsy, wounded ex-acrobat with the intellect of a child. Proctor, and the way Maitland takes command of him, makes it easy to suggest some parallels for Ballard’s novel: Robinson Crusoe (with Proctor as Man Friday), or The Tempest (Proctor as Caliban). In which case, is Jane, with her ability to leave the island, Ariel? (At one point I found myself wondering if Jane’s name didn’t suggest Maitland as a sort of Tarzan of the urban jungle, with Proctor as the chimp Cheetah.) And there’s the inevitable feeling, as with High-Rise, that this might devolve into a sort of inner-city Lord of the Flies, with Maitland hoping to be rescued while trying to fend off the breakdown of even this little, three-person social structure, before it murders him.

But Maitland, it turns out, was already living on a sort of island. He’d carefully arranged his life to keep a certain distance between himself and everyone else. He won’t be missed after his accident because his wife (the “cool, formal house with its large white rooms” he shares with her gives a good idea of the temperature of that relationship) will assume he’s with his mistress, and his mistress will assume he’s with his wife; meanwhile, his son will make his own way home when he’s not picked up from school, and his office is too used to his not turning up for days at a time to be concerned.

1976 Panther PB, art by Richard Clifton-Dey

The roots of this isolation are deep. The concrete island begins to remind Maitland of the main image he has of his childhood, of him playing alone in a high-walled garden. Are, then, Jane and Proctor some warped evocation of his divorced parents? Is Proctor an image of himself as an un-grown-up child in an adult body, socially awkward and clumsy? Is Jane some confused mix of all the women in Maitland’s life, the caring then suddenly distant mother, the coolly transactional lover, and the vulnerable, damaged little girl?

There’s definitely a feeling that what’s going on here is not some moral fable about the disconnection of modern life, but a psychodrama with its roots in childhood. (John Baxter, in his biography of Ballard, calls this book “the most overtly self-analytical of his novels”, but to me it doesn’t really come across as especially personal to Ballard — though perhaps that’s just in retrospect, with the Empire of the Sun a couple of novels away.)

Maitland, it seems, was only too eager to find himself marooned on this concrete island, and once he is, his real work is not to be rescued, but to let these nagging figures that the accident has shaken free from his brain — whatever they represent — run through their dramas until, played out, they leave him genuinely alone at last. Concrete Island, then, is about a man in search of a moment of inner peace — even if it takes a car crash, fever, and near starvation to achieve it.

1985 PB, art again by Chris Moore

The book has an interesting writing history. After its first draft, Ballard wrote a screenplay (now housed in the British Library) adapting what he’d written. He then went back to the novel and revised it extensively into its final, published form. The screenplay went unfilmed, but seems to have acted as a way of getting perspective on the novel prior to honing it into its final shape.

It remains something of a minor Ballard novel, lacking the iconic feeling of those books that grapple with the sort of archetypal (modern or timeless) landscapes found in The Drowned World, The Crystal World, Crash and High-Rise. But the book’s touching on childhood, in combination with its protagonist’s extended periods of hunger and fever, point towards it being another step closer to his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. After all, once the post-collision hubcap stops rolling and comes to halt, its bright chromium surface provides a perfect little mirror for what Ballard is doing here: a moment of self-reflection after some traumatic event.