World unto itself

Hopkins' fiction has appeared in the journals One Story and Quick Fiction.

The copyright page of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s story collection “Salmonella Men on Planet Porno” says the book was originally published in 1979. As it turns out, while the title story was included in a 1979 collection, no book called “Salmonella Men” was published in Japan until 2005.

Both the Japanese and English versions are “greatest hits” collections -- but it appears the author and his translator, Andrew Driver, have selected different hits. (Despite the fact that the award-winning Tsutsui has published dozens of books, “Salmonella Men” is his American debut.)

In any event, the fact remains: These are old stories. The English translation of “Rumors About Me” on Tsutsui’s website has a TV anchorman saying, “And that concludes our news about Vietnam”; Driver’s translation simply omits this line.


These stories are also, as the title telegraphs, very weird. Tsutsui frequently writes in (or borrows from) sci-fi, fantastic or metafictional modes: A strange tree placed next to a bed gives nearby sleepers lucid erotic dreams that go haywire; a repairman invents a time machine, causing the story to loop in on itself; a salary man finds himself in a paranoid nightmare in which the news media suddenly start following his every move.

But the distance of three decades creates a different strangeness, an air of 1970s-era sexism that’s almost more bizarre than the situations and plots. It’s not just that a misogynist streak runs through many of these stories and makes them feel dated. And it’s not just that the women here are more caricatures than characters: submissive, “coquettish,” money-obsessed wives, eager virgins and the like.

Rather, the hatred of women has a peculiar post-second-wave-feminist feel to it, as in “The World Is Tilting,” a cringe-inducing satire of what happens when women are given power. The world of the title is a new city, built on a man-made floating island, that was created to be a “feminist paradise.” The island is ballasted with billions of pachinko balls, but a typhoon leads to breaches in the bulkheads, and the city starts to tilt into the sea.

Only the rational male characters, who have painfully allegorical names like Proven McLogick, notice. The women, obsessed with “self-protection and self-advancement,” repress the facts. The city tilts more and more; people get hurt and die; women start walking with their bodies at an angle in order to prove that it’s not the city that’s tilting, “but the rest of the world.” The story ends with the mayor, who called the tilt allegations “a serious challenge to feminism,” chained to a water tower, shooting at a rescue helicopter as she and her city plunge into the ocean. This is, frankly, a dreadful piece of writing. It’s Phyllis Schlafly in Calvino drag.

Speculative or fantastic fiction, of course, often has a political subtext, and feminism is just one of Tsutsui’s targets.

“The Very Edge of Happiness” shows another. The story opens with the main character scalding his son from toes to waist in a too-hot bath; he then pummels his wife (a monthly occurrence, he says) because she tells him she’s happy. “ ‘Now I know why they call you cows!’ ” he yells before punching and kicking her.


The narrator despises the materialistic culture in which he finds himself, hates the “utterly repulsive, extraordinarily ordinary blinkered happiness, so false it saps my energy, so tepid it makes me want to vomit.” After he watches a woman bludgeon her son to death in a bank, he takes his family to the beach, where he finds himself waddling inexorably into an ocean that’s gradually filling up with corpses. “Everyone was smiling, as if demented with euphoria.” Capitalism, in other words, is mass suicide.

This too feels dated: satirizing conspicuous consumption, paid for “in installments.” In the context of terrorist attacks and a global economic meltdown, materialism seems old-fashioned -- a charming, quaint idea that’s on its way out, possibly about to be replaced by something much, much worse. “[L]emmings have no noble intention of restoring the balance of nature,” the narrator of “The Very Edge of Happiness” tells us; similarly, as he and the rest of humanity push out into the water, he has “no feeling of introspection over the abnormal wealth, the abnormal peace, or the abnormal happiness of the human race.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the regressive politics, there are moments of greatness here: “Commuter Army,” for example, is about a war in which, because “[c]onscription makes the government unpopular” and “there aren’t enough volunteers,” the military has started hiring suburbanites to take a commuter train to the front lines from home every day. It’s darkly funny and still fresh and relevant.

The title story too -- the last and longest in the collection -- is a tawdry, oddball, sci-fi B-movie piece of brilliance. Its name, seemingly absurd at first, makes perfect sense once you’ve waded deep into its surreal, psychosexual world. Here, we find a distant planet populated by species that appear not unlike Earth’s birds and reptiles and amphibians but are instead the descendants of a still-extant colony of randy hippies, which explains why they’re all constantly rubbing any living thing they can find (including an expedition of somewhat horrified Japanese scientists) into an interspecies erotic frenzy.

This piece alone is worth the price of admission, almost mitigating the book’s earlier failures and embarrassments.