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Suspension: Kubitsuri High School

And so we return to the archives of the nonsense-using quasi-detective Iitan, who begrudgingly solves the murders that always seem to darken his doorstep. I’ve generally had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with this series, as while I love Nisio Isin’s prose, characterization, and thematic inquiry, I simply do not care for mysteries and puzzles in the way he does. As such, my experience of these stories involves a lot of sorta halfway nodding off as they detail some convoluted murder mystery scenario, only to snap into focus when somebody starts talking about their feelings.

Fortunately, somebody always does start talking about their feelings, or their perspective on modern society, or their overarching theory of human interactions. Isin is simply too irrepressibly curious to stick with boilerplate genre beats for long, and his works always feel like they’re inviting a conversation, offering intentional contradictions and dangling ends of theories for audiences to engage with and challenge. The nature of stories in the abstract and how they inform our self-image, the profound difficulty of understanding the self, and subsequent impossibility of understanding others, the ways we are all defined by our personal histories, yet still capable of reinvention – Isin always dives into the good stuff, the heavy stuff, the unfiltered work of seeking in art a greater understanding of our place in this world. Isin always comes back to the Big Truths, which is why I’ll always be coming back to Isin.

Even Suspension’s opening epigraph centers it in a proud thematic Isin tradition, offering Goethe’s “When I err everyone can see it; but not when I lie,” as a keystone for the drama to come. The power and value of a lie is a recurring concern for Isin, cropping up multiple times even just in Monogatari. Kaiki Deishu questions the preeminence of an original over a fake, attesting that the fake is, through its active effort to mimic the original, actually more worthy. Araragi and Mayoi reflect on how lies can actually be courageous, if they are kindly meant – for as they both know, the world is too full of horrors for sincerity to always be the best policy. Lies are not necessarily misdeeds in the world of Isin; they are tools, complex in their application and ambiguous in their morality, but always, always an inherent aspect of identity-forming and communication. Hell, some of the most important lies are those we tell ourselves – “I can do this” when you don’t believe it’s true, “I can change” when you don’t believe it’s possible. If not for hopeful lies, the world would be a far crueler, less hopeful place.

Additionally, as even Suspension’s first paragraphs indicate, Isin himself does not take mysteries all that seriously. Abducted by the ultimate contractor Jun Aikawa, our hero Iitan “deduces” that “the vibration was the sound of the engine running, which meant that the car was currently moving, which meant that someone must be in the driver’s seat. Finding this roundabout thought process too irritating, I glanced at the driver’s seat.” From an audience’s perspective, this thought process presumably comes across as whimsy bordering on sophistry – but from the mystery writer’s perspective, it is more or less the essence of mystery storytelling.

Isin fully understands that the systems of alleged logic underlying any fictional detective’s deductions are generally flimsy and transparent, only appearing as ironclad because the framing of the story implies them to be so. In truth, you could essentially staple any solution to any mystery, if you were willing to be sufficiently roundabout in your storytelling. As Edgar Allen Poe admitted upon writing The Murders in the Rue Morgue, frequently considered the first formal mystery story, “people think them more ingenious than they are – on account of their method and air of method… where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself… have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?”

There are two key points to dig into there: first, that most mysteries are in truth dramas of aesthetics, with their most important quality being the correct tone, mixing urgency and befuddlement, consequence and impossibility – the “air of method” that Poe describes. And second, that mysteries only look impressive from one direction, like plywood storefronts affixed to lonely beams in some western film. It is easy to pile contrivance upon contrivance in order to disguise the solution; while audiences must work backwards from this tangle of contrivances towards the truth, authors can appreciate the ease with which a mystery writer can start with the truth and then stack three improbable specifics on top of each other, thereby constructing a fiendish mystery with the greatest of ease. It is far harder to deduce a baboon than to start with the need for a baboon-tier misdirection and proceed from there.

You can even conduct this exercise at home, and see for yourself how easy it is to create a mystery in reverse. Starting with the truth of a situation, simply stack concealing factors on top of each other, making sure to leave precisely one minor yet ultimately damning hint for your detective to unpeel each successive layer. The butler did it, alright – but the butler never left the drawing room (save for his use of the dumbwaiter, carefully hidden in the wall so as to only be revealed by the detective’s keen eye). Fine, fine, we’ll hide the dumbwaiter behind a chest of drawers (whose recent shifting left scratches on the floor, to be discovered by a careful investigator). But you see, the butler was unconscious during these events, he couldn’t possibly have – (oh wait, chloroform and smelling salts, carefully tucked within the casing of the grandfather clock). The greater the contrivance, the greater the trick – and so your audience applauds for being fooled, failing to realize the author’s supreme advantage. That clay from one precise region of France did not reach the killer’s heels by accident – it was placed there by the author, confident in the improbability of its discovery, and the resulting astonishment of their detective’s audience.

Anyway, mysteries aside, there is also the distinct pleasure of Isin’s easy wit and confident, whimsical prose. Iitan’s recollection of his beloved Tomo trying and failing to secure a specific school uniform offers a quick example: a one-two-three punch of “I’ll never give up! I swear by the black of my eyes!” “Aren’t her eyes blue?” “I guess that’s why she gave up.” Isin’s authorial voice is a persistent pleasure, as he dances between outrageously specific reference humor and cringe-worthy puns, sparing plenty of room for character-specific gags and emergent chemistry. Inexperienced authors often seem to see words as an imperfect medium, a method of translating dramatic intent, but never a purpose in and of themselves. True writers understand that words are our friends, as playful and flexible as any painter’s brush, and that there is no greater pleasure than indulging in the inherent drama, humor, and musicality of words in sequence. You don’t need to love language to love stories, but it really, really helps – particularly if you’re interested in writing anything that actually cares about human relations, and the imperfect transference of intent communication always entails.

Shit, I still haven’t described what Suspension is about, have I? Well, you can’t exactly blame me; for both Isin and myself, plot tends to be an afterthought, obviously and rightfully subservient to character, theme, and the sheer beauty of words in sequence. And in Suspension’s case, even Isin admits in his afterword that the story possesses “neither theme nor thesis,” and is essentially just a procession of Iitan’s loose thoughts as he conducts one more unwilling investigation. “Was gender the theme this time?” Iitan wonders, only to swiftly discard the thought – after all, the ambiguous intersection of gender and identity has already been interrogated via Monogatari and its ever-fluid Ougi. Of course, Iitan still ends up spending this volume in a skirt, for his mission is thus: infiltrate the mysterious all-girls Kubitsuri High School, make contact with student Ichihime Yukariki, and escape with both her and Iitan himself intact.

The overt text of Suspension mostly covers just that, as Iitan swiftly makes contact with “Hime,” is saved from one of her terrifying fellow students by the arrival of Aikawa herself, subsequently discovers yet another locked room murder, and ultimately finds some resolution to his discomfiting mental conflation of Hime with the girl he failed, the girl he loves, the Tomo forever on his mind.

In this pursuit, both Isin’s fascination with perspective and his obsession with “fakes” come directly into play. Iitan is the first to challenge perspective, stating how “ultimately, people can only understand fortune and misfortune in relative terms.” All of our understandings are relative, and even our language means different things from one person to the next. The concept of “lucky” is entirely derived from the surrounding circumstances, and will have a totally different implication from one person to the next. These are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy and amuse both Isin and his protagonists in turn – for as he’d be the first to admit, he’s not above implanting his heroes with his own fascinations and anxieties.

“Good or bad, superior or inferior, fortunate or unfortunate, they’re all things you judge in comparison to something else.” Hime’s description of her strange boot camp school echoes Iitan’s words, again emphasizing how all things only have a meaningful caliber in comparison to something else. To this lament regarding the inherently relative, perpetually undefinable nature of the world, Iitan responds simply “the only question is whether it suits you or not, whether it’s a good fit.” Judging all things as relative will never lead to weighted, satisfying conclusions – all we can hope for is to gauge how some irreducibly relative variable matches our own sensibilities.

Alright, so that’s perspective. Let’s talk about fakes – for it is the substitution of the genuine article for an accommodating replica that defines Suspension’s drama, as Iitan readily admits. Considering his own odd dedication to Aikawa’s mission, Iitan reflects “So this wasn’t even a desire to protect Hime-chan. It was just self-satisfaction – no, it might as well have been autotoxemia. What an unbearable level of nonsense.” Iitan is the first to analyze his own motivations, divining that his defense of Hime-chan is a misplaced echo of his feelings towards Tomo, yet carrying on anyway. The personal drama echoes the mystery drama – both are known to be falsehoods from the start, yet both must nonetheless be carried through to their conclusions.

And so Iitan does so, carrying on a facsimile of his relationship with Tomo in the form of his swift bond with Hime. They banter freely, but there is always a distance; as Iitan phrases it, “ getting real with people, interacting without any nonsense or disingenuous kindness, means hurting each other. I didn’t want to hurt Hime-chan with a clumsy interaction – and most of all I didn’t want to get hurt myself.” These are familiar words for an Isin protagonist; after all, his use of wordplay and nonsense affectations for his characters, his freewheeling tendency to have them discuss anything and everything but their own deepest feelings, are all essentially defensive mechanisms. They are ways to get closer without truly becoming vulnerable, without engaging with the raw, ugly, and easily wounded substance of our deepest feelings.

 “I don’t provide anyone with anything. So I don’t accept anything from anyone. I refuse anything and everything. That… was just about the last source of dignity I had left.” Iitan is overwhelmed with guilt regarding his prior “crimes” against Tomo, the way his cynical behavior weighed down her once-optimistic worldview. And eventually, he comes to realize that “Hime-chan doesn’t resemble her. She resembles her the way she was back then.” A perpetual reminder of his crimes, of how he robbed Tomo of her childlike happiness. It’s a heavy, confusing weight to bear – and ultimately, it proves to be Iitan’s fatal weakness.

For as it turns out, Hime-chan is not exactly a vision of Tomo from the past. She’s a fake, another replica, a fellow cynic deliberately exploiting Iitan’s sentimentality. Her true thoughts run closer to Iitan’s, as she explains that “basically everyone – everyone is a fake.” But with the mirror of his own feelings now in front of him, Iitan can begin to recognize some cracks in his poise. “Is it lonely, being so alone?”

To this girl who is not Tomo, Iitan confesses his abominable crime, aligning Suspension’s focus on perspective with its preoccupation with mirrors and fakes. And in doing so, he realizes the world is so painful because he and Hime are wrong – because there is trust and compassion in the world, even in their own hearts, but it is easily stamped on and trampled by all the injustice and lies and cruelty. If everything were an awful lie, there would be nothing to lose – but because the world does contain some sacred, precious things, the preeminence of liars and destroyers makes existence that much more painful.

Iitan thus proposes to share his exceptionally normal life with Hime, an offer that overwhelmingly echoes Kaiki’s final, uncharacteristically earnest conservation with the mad god Shinobu. We cannot untangle the sprawling mess of contradictions that is any life’s purpose through pure logical deduction – we can only do it through living, through pursuing the things we care about and seeking happiness where we can, through tripping and skinning our knees and getting back up again. For anxious, unhappy, wildly self-analytical people like Isin and Iitan and all those who relate to these stories, personal fulfillment will never come as the resolution of the equations we assign ourselves – it can only come from looking up from the drawing board, and grasping towards whatever the world has to offer us.

For all their studious analysis and self-destructive behavior, both Iitan and Hime’s feelings are ultimately quite ordinary. Iitan is defined by his guilt over “corrupting” Tomo, while Hime is defined by her fear of Aikawa’s disapproval. Through circuitous routes we arrive at simple ends; the moment the mirrors align, Iitan and Hime see their truths reflected in each other. “I understood her feelings as if they were my own. I understand her feelings as I understand my own. I understand them as my own.” It’s an optimistic phrasing for an optimistic moment; even Iitan himself will later append that “no two people can ever fully comprehend each other. It’s simply a question of whether or not you can convince yourself that you can, whether you can delude yourself into believing it’s possible.” But perhaps that doesn’t actually matter – for Hime protected him because she saw herself in him, just as he protected her for seeing Tomo in her smile. Be it a reflection, be it a fake, be it a momentary trick of perspective – they connected, and their lives were better for it. For all us anxious screwups like Isin and Iitan and myself, that might just be enough.

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.

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