'Porno' Goes Absurdist

'Salmonella Man on Planet Porno'

Japan was nearly 30 years ahead of us, as usual.

Yasutaka Tsutsui’s quirky and entertaining “Salmonella Men on Planet Porno,” a collection of short stories written in 1979, is just now making its debut in the United States, but the stories capitalize on the same theme—the bizarre nature of systemized society—that the contemporary television series “The Office” exploits today. Tsutsui shrewdly reveals the hairline stresses, lusts, and insanities that no society can ever completely wall in.

But while Tsutsui’s message may be similar to “The Office,” the events through which he conveys that message are of a drastically different brand. His tired office workers encounter trees that inspire erotic dreams and find planets full of pornographic animals. Throughout Tsutsui’s eclectic assortment of stories, rather mundane characters are brought face to face with dystopia and the world of science fiction. Time machines and stampeding gangs of smoking abolitionists break through the white static of the protagonists’ humdrum lives. Tsutsui’s surreal elements forcibly draw attention to the need for an expressive outlet in a world marked by such brutal pressure to conform.

And indeed, the pressure to conform is brutal. The men in these stories (and every one is written from a masculine perspective) face the unrelenting duress of not bringing shame to their family, friends, work, or nation. Both ends of the spectrum are represented—the men who completely buy into the system and the men who try to fight against it.

The narrator of “Farmer Airlines” decides to fly through a typhoon in an airplane piloted by a woman of dubious credentials in order to avoid a tongue-lashing by his boss. Even though he privately thinks his Editor-in-Chief’s orders are a “disastrous idea,” when other people voice this opinion, he speaks up in dishonest defense. Luckily he survives the ordeal. His photographer, however, does not. When the protagonist makes it back to the office, there’s no sympathy expressed for his predicament nor any sort of remorse at the death of his co-worker. Rather, in true company-first fashion, his boss bursts out in anger, “Why the hell didn’t you get the film off him first?!”

On the other hand, in “The Last Smoker,” the narrator defiantly rebels against convention. He continues to smoke cigarettes even when health officials and the public argue violently against it. Most other nations have already given up smoking, and, in the story, many Japanese perceive the fact that cigarettes are still being sold in their country, in so-called “smoke-easies,” as humiliating. Discrimination against smokers gives rise to McCarthy-esque blacklists of prominent smokers, and angry housewives are armed with kitchen knives for those who refuse to stop smoking “despite repeated requests.” The repression of smokers and, transitively, the repression of dissenting individuals in society is ultimately shown to have terrible consequences.

The toll of this draconian suppression of the human spirit can be seen in the growing indifference of Tsutsui’s characters. In “Hello, Hello, Hello!” a “Household Economy Consultant” shows up at the narrator’s door, reminding the narrator and his family to save money whenever they think of pouring guests tea or buying new clothes. Though at first the narrator shows some indignation at being told he is poor, soon he is starving himself in order to save himself a little extra money. In the end, when his savings are erased, he hardly bats an eye. “You see, our hard-earned savings are always going to be taken from us by someone—whether we have any or not.”

In other stories, the apathy is even more marked. Decapitation by piano strings and asphyxiations by pachinko balls are details thrown into stories that go without special notice by the author—who just glides over them—or by any of the characters, who all fail to notice the strange occurrences. The wife of “Bad Heart” brushes off her husband’s complaints of cardiovascular problems as a childish bid for attention.

The main characters find themselves suppressed even in the domestic realm, as their wives make them feel ashamed, used, and inadequate. Developing complexes that make them shudder at the thought of having sex with their wives, they retreat into passivity or run far, far away into delusion.

Tsutsui’s own detached narrative voice allows the reader to laugh at events that would otherwise be overly pathetic or horrifying. The clever blend of science fiction and realism allows Tsutsui to defamiliarize the familiar and highlight certain similarities that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious. The routine parts of life—worries about what the boss will say, or the wife will do, or the men will think—are emphasized even more against the backdrop of absurd calamities—a plane crash, an organ rupture, or a sinking city. Even in extraordinary circumstances, the ruts of their daily life are too deep to escape.

Through these strange but memorable stories, Tsutsui invites the reader to explore the ridiculous. One just hopes that some readers will respond to his invitation. After all, aren’t we all just trapped in the same mindless, socially imposed preoccupations that cage Tsutsui’s protagonists and blind them to savoring—or even just realizing—the beautiful uniqueness of their circumstances?

—Staff writer Rebecca A. Schuetz can be reached at schuetz@fas.harvard.edu.