Salmonella Men on Planet Porno
By Yasutaka Tsutsui
Translated by Andrew Driver
Pantheon; 252 pages; $21.95
The title of popular Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui’s short fiction collection “Salmonella Men on Planet Porno” presents a nearly irresistible temptation to skip to the final, title story and seek out the scandal. But while, yes, there is an orgy (also unusual animals like the penisparrow and chaparrals of naughty fondleweed), and the collection unabashedly romps in the sexual facets of modern humanity and culture—it does so much more, sometimes brilliantly, often hilariously, always fantastically, and never bound by reality or convention.
Right from the start, in “The Dabba Dabba Tree,” Tsutsui catapults readers inside a young married couple’s erotic dreams—brought on by the phallic tree, of course—not simply for lubricity’s sake but as a pleasurable yet profound query into the distinction between individual and collective reality. It’s followed by an arguably brilliant allegory of reality television and the cult of personality, “Rumours About Me,” wherein Tsutomu Morishita, simple company man, sees his banausic daily life (from his continued rejection by a cute coworker to his masturbatory habits) broadcast by the media until he is transformed into “a nobody who was known by everybody.”
Not all stories are pregnant with prosaic or symbolic critique. Some are simply good for a laugh or present an amusing revision of history, while others depict people only looking after themselves, living as unfeeling automatons, or erupting in violence as they lament buying on credit and living a façade of “’phoney little happiness,’” as happens in “The Very Edge of Happiness.”
But Tsutsui is at his best when juggling both apples—devising entertaining, whimsical worlds and scenarios that camouflage scathing criticism. One standout is “The Last Smoker,” a not so subtle indictment of the cult of non-smoking where “[d]iscrimination against smokers quickly grew to the level of a witch-hunt.” And of course there’s the title story, which takes place on the planet Nakamura in the Kabuki solar system, populated by human-like creatures who walk around naked, and where “things tend to veer from the normal towards the obscene, if anything.” There, aggression matched by limitless libido brings peace to its country Newdopia, and Tsutsui clearly blames the tendency to term obscene anything outside the established norm as the true cause of societal violence and depravity.
Sure, some parts may seem obtuse or even self-indulgent, and throughout, these primarily first-person male narrated stories pulse with a slim vein of misogyny (unfaithful, demanding, bitchy, and vindictive women—especially wives—abound). But each and every story sizzles with energy, teems with issues, and sweeps you happily along into the fantasy.
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno is not for the faint hearted. Instead, like the only people admitted to Newdopia, you must be open and truly progressive to receive its infinite joys.
-Reviewed by Christine Thomas
For the Miami Herald