‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ by Yukiko Motoya (Review)

After a slightly disappointing experience with my last Women in Translation Month read, I did what I often do and went to Japanese literature for some comfort reading, and luckily that did the trick.  My latest post looks at an excellent collection of short stories by a new (in English…) writer, one whose work will remind many readers of some other well-known J-Lit favourites.  It’s a book I really enjoyed, but there is one thing I didn’t like about it – this is certainly a work you should *not* judge by its cover 😉

Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder (translated by Asa Yoneda, review copy courtesy of Soft Skull Press) is a collection of eleven stories taken from two Japanese books.  The pieces range in length from a couple of six-page sketches and some standard-length stories to a few longer ones, including the novella-length ‘An Exotic Marriage’, for which Motoya received the famed Akutagawa Prize in 2015.  Confusingly, there’s also a UK edition out under the title Picnic in the Storm – the two books contain the same stories, so don’t get confused!

One of the many writers praising Motoya in the blurbs is Hiromi Kawakami, and there are several stories here that have hints of some of her trademark whimsy and oddness.  ‘Typhoon’ has an old man in a bus shelter telling stories and pointing out the salarymen in the street about to take flight (really…) while in ‘Paprika Jiro’ market stalls are destroyed by a horde of mysterious people dressed in black, who may not be people at all.  Meanwhile, ‘Q & A’ has a famed agony aunt signing off her career with some rather strange advice, including a plea to consider bicycle saddles as potential partners…

One of the more sinister stories is ‘The Dogs’ (also featured in the Japan edition of Granta Magazine), the story of a person holed up in the mountains with only some eerie dogs for company.  It’s a bizarre piece with a creepy air, ending with the reader still unsure as to what’s been going on.  Even when a story starts off fairly mundanely, as is the case in ‘Fitting Room’, it soon turns strange – I’m not sure many shop assistants would hang around overnight waiting for an unseen customer to make their mind up.

Apart from the strangeness, the main element running through the collection is the theme of marriage, and particularly the effect it can have on two people who live together for a long time.  ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ sees a woman neglected by her husband taking up an unusual new hobby, only for him to not even notice.  When her fitness coach urges her to put on a brave face, she struggles to carry on as if nothing has happened:

“But,” I said, to Coach’s quiet words, “if you’re always smiling like that, don’t you lose sight of your true feelings?  Is it right to smile when really you’re so lonely you could cry?  I… I wish now I could have shown my husband all my different faces.  There’s so much inside me he doesn’t know.”
‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’, p.18 (Soft Skull Press, 2018)

The question here is whether she’s prepared to carry on living with a man who hardly notices her.

‘The Straw Husband’ covers similar ground, albeit in a slightly less conventional manner.  This one is a story of the honeymoon period coming to an end, with a woman’s husband becoming aggressive and dismissive for the first time, but there’s more to the story than a simple difference of opinions.  When the protagonist says ‘straw’, she means it literally, but it’s what’s inside her husband’s dry body that’s really disturbing.

Some of the stories included here take a more dramatic approach to marital conflict.  In ‘The Women’, a man is challenged by his partner to a duel, and as he reluctantly accompanies her down to the river, he sees that he’s not the only one being forced to fight to prove his love.  By contrast, ‘How to Burden the Girl’ has a man falling for his beautiful neighbour, only to learn that she has some dark secrets, and a fair few skeletons (hint – they’re not all in her cupboards…).

The writer’s obsessions all come together in the main event, ‘An Exotic Marriage’, a wonderful novella that examines the way years of marriage can sap the individuality from the people involved.  San is fairly happy with her lot, yet when she one day notices that she’s coming to resemble her husband, she’s forced to reevaluate her life.  A neighbour tells her a story of a similar occurrence from her own experience, and suggests a solution, but San decides to carry on, comfortable with her humdrum existence.

However, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to ignore what’s happening.  Her husband becomes ever lazier, and his facial expressions are less fixed every day.  San finds herself wondering who her husband actually is:

Each time I looked at my husband lying on the couch, I had the strange impression I was living with a new kind of organism that would die if it exerted itself in any way.  Even when I told him about Sansho’s toilet accidents, his only response was to pick up Zoromi from the floor and say, ” Zoromi!  You’re not going to cause me any extra trouble, are you?  Do you understand what I’m saying?”
How was it that he could have so little compunction about always letting someone else pick up the slack?  I wanted to ask, but no doubt this exotic creature would consider the question just another thing that was too much effort to deal with.  How had I ended up married to a completely different species of being from me?

‘An Exotic Marriage’, p.77

Her doubts as to her husband’s human status quite naturally lead her to consider what he might become if holding on to his husband shape is just too much effort.

‘An Exotic Marriage’ is another of the stories that start off fairly normally before plunging into weirdness.  At its heart is the idea of husbands using their wives, sponging off them emotionally and absorbing their energy, with the couples ending up morphing into one entity with two bodies.  Once San realises what’s happening, she has to decide how she will handle the problem, and whether it might be easier simply to give in to the inevitable.  One thing I can promise you here is a rather unusual conclusion.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder is an impressive collection of stories and enjoyable to read, thanks in part to Asa Yoneda’s translation.  I loved her work on Banana Yoshimoto’s Moshi Moshi, and this is another excellent effort.  It would be interesting to see how Motoya’s style holds up in longer works, so here’s hoping we get to see more of her books in English at some point.  In short, this is another I’m happy to recommend, with just one caveat…

…I’m sorry, but I *really* hate that cover 😦

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