You might think you’ve read stories like Izumi Suzuki’s. They have a punchy, au courant voice and teem with bad feelings about living with other people, not to mention living at all. Publishing tends to chase hard-edged youth for the key to our confounding present, but Suzuki (1949-86) sounded like now back then. Her youthfulness is a 20th-century product.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, she modeled nude and acted in Japanese sexploitation cinema; during and after a doomed marriage to a saxophone player, she made a name in science-fiction magazines as a punked-up writer, pursuing her ideas to their sublime, almost idiotic limit (a compliment), until her death by suicide at 36.
“Terminal Boredom,” the dour but hard-to-shake collection that Verso Books published two years ago, was the American introduction to the Suzuki cult. The latest excavation of her archives, HIT PARADE OF TEARS (Verso, 276 pp., paperback, $19.95), is funnier, more electric and more hit-and-miss. I like it so much better.
What does Suzuki push to absurdity? Gender, relationships, family and the meaning of pop culture. The best piece of covert arts criticism I’ve read in a minute is in this collection, a psychedelic trip in and out of the head of an ersatz garage-rock groupie named Reico (also spelled Reyco and Reiko, depending on how she feels) whose life never seems to belong to her as much as the music does.
Is that original? Not totally. But does “Almost Famous” have a scene when the sky opens to reveal giant chopsticks hovering over salmon roe as big as skyscrapers? Suzuki’s narratives might contain B-movie silliness. They also have the hypnotic power of a bender. Just look at the time — you’ve suddenly finished them all.
A minor description from Theodore McCombs’s inquisitive fantasia URANIANS (Astra House, 210 pp., $25), his debut collection, illuminated the whole book for me. The main character in “Laguna Heights,” frustrated by memory gaps caused by his top-shelf neurotechnology, is called the “sort of man pleased to remember that old movies are still in the world.” He’s not pleased; he’s the kind of person who would be pleased. This detached phrasing, however tossed-off, tore me out of the moment, and confronted me with an iffy behavioral theory: Identity predetermines emotions and actions, and emotions and actions reinforce identity, in one smooth loop.
Almost all of McCombs’s protagonists suffer from this fallacy, whether they are in early-20th-century Boston or on a corporate spaceship. Not all the characters are queer but queerness is central to their thinking, as when they question socialization or wonder how to live authentically. An imaginary box labeled “What I Am” plagues them; they are also equally oppressed by another box, labeled “What I Am Not.” This creates a potent stasis, a conditional way of life that no one is fully happy with.
That stagnancy also means the plots never bloom. (There is something more to be said — with a larger word count — about how multiverse stories, like the first in this collection, can be “waiting room” dramas, where all the action is in someone’s head and thus nothing actually happens.) McCombs’s prose is elegant, but can veer into description for description’s sake. He has an aesthete’s addiction to getting lost in what’s rich. But the best parts of “Uranians” are the most focused, when he gives his characters the gift of discovering that their point of view is not the point at all.
In her previous novels, “Early Morning Riser” and “Standard Deviation,” and her first collection, “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” Katherine Heiny’s touch was always astonishingly light, even when a serious darkness might take over. As the title of her latest collection suggests, GAMES AND RITUALS (Knopf, 218 pp., $28) deals in more of the same. Her stories are paeans to the almighty joke, both what it accomplishes and what it precludes, often at the expense of anything substantial.
Up to the moment it would be unforgivable, her characters crack wise from the same arsenal, their charm depending heavily on your sense of humor. (I’ll admit, it’s not mine.) There’s a reliance on almost vaudevillian repetition (“He looks like a retired history teacher and is, in fact, a retired history teacher”), gently used internet speak (“because, well, marriage”) and winking one-liners about universal misfortune (“That’s love for you”). Her characters often possess a guilelessness that at its best evokes Lorrie Moore’s tough cookies, and at its worst a harried friend ignoring the truth.
Having a laugh is one of life’s great pleasures, but sometimes you crave more. Heiny’s stories hint at something truly ripe for comic fiction: Her characters have a nagging fear of getting old. Not of dying, oddly, but the part right before it — losing the validation of others, missing the point, having nothing left but doctors’ appointments and the company of your self-absorbed children. It’s a substantial terror. But when the moment of reckoning comes in these stories, it only fizzes, like an open can of seltzer. You have to ask: Is that all there is?
In an obituary for Steven Heighton, his former publisher Martha Sharpe is quoted saying she was “blown away” by the first story in INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DROWNING (Biblioasis, 217 pp., paperback, $22.95), citing the author’s ability to choose “the things included and the things not included.” “He was really, really good at that,” she said, and boy, was she right.
To read work like Heighton’s knowing that we won’t get more of it — he died last year of cancer, at the age of 60 — inspires fury in all directions. Who’s thinking of the things not included when you have what Heighton does include? Every story in this collection has “it,” whatever Heighton decided “it” would be: pacing that thrills; fragile love and blind hate; descriptions you can smell and taste and hear.
I’m not saying the collection is a smoothly flowing concert album, with only the best solos of Heighton’s career captured on high-end equipment. For every classically humanist story, say, about the moment everything became clear between a man and his wife (and his son, and his father), there is a thorny B-side that will appear in your thoughts unexpectedly, as you zone out on Zoom.
At the risk of classic rock cliché, the deep cuts might be better. There’s the plastic surgeon who goes too far in tribute to beauty. The gravedigger surrounded by olives you shouldn’t eat from the tree. And the writer of an unsigned note left in your mailbox, with one telling word out of place. They all live now, thanks to Heighton’s talent, and they haven’t faded yet.
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