The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya / Soft Skull Press / 224 pages / 978-1593766788 / 2018
“Life’s not worth living if you’re not tending to the whims and demands of a high-maintenance lover!”
(“The Women”, p. 154)
You don’t always know what you’re getting into when you pick up a book. Only when you begin reading, when the first few pages begin to leave an imprint on you emotionally, and their significance trickles through like little pinpricks, that you realize you’ve come across something major. Such was my experience with Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, which defied my expectations in the most extreme and positive way possible. It was a collection that swallowed me into its pages with its quirky, magical and surreal, and, above all else, touchingly comical short stories. Motoya’s collection captures everyday truths as well as fears and hurdles, weaving commentary into them about issues like gender roles, class, and style in a way that is organic and, as a result, even more powerful and memorable.
There is a dual sense of ease and discomfort to Motoya’s stories that feels like a bold challenge to the reader, one that invites you to engage with them but never get too comfortable. On the one hand, Motoya’s writing does not leave the reader guessing where the jabs and humour are, the emphasis integrated into the natural transitions in Motoya’s language. On the other hand, it is the very nature of the satire and critiques that is worrisome, as well as the realization of how pervasive these issues are. Some of them, like body image or gender roles in a relationship, may be familiar in their complexity to the Western reader, such as the words of the main character in the titular story when she sees a wrestling match on TV and wonders:
Why had I never watched this kind of thing before? Pro wrestling, mixed martial arts —I’d assumed they weren’t for me. How wrong I was. I always do that. I decide who I am, and never consider other possibilities.
Others, like Motoya’s humorous critique of politeness in “Why I Can No Longer Look at a Picnic Blanket Without Laughing”, might be a bit less familiar. The female protagonist’s determination to uphold a high level of customer service with a mysterious client introduces an aspect of Japanese culture that may be new to some readers, and which has continued to fascinate me in its dichotomy to Western culture ever since I heard about it years ago. Hence, there is a special joy and relish in following the protagonist’s internal debate over the matter, especially when she considers
scar[ing] [her] customer into leaving the changing room by telling her [the] story [about a woman who’d disappeared from a changing room]. That might actually be good customer service — less likely to cause offense than saying, “Please do feel free to step out and look in this larger mirror here!”
In both situations there is something to take away from the stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder, which repeatedly use flawlessly timed humour to draw the reader in and make them hang on to every word. Similarly, there is a directness to Motoya’s language and approach that I appreciated, as well as a sense of measure that is difficult to execute perfectly in the limited span of a short story. Motoya shows how details can be significant without the writing being forceful or apparent to the point of having an effect opposite of what is desired. “I Called You by Name” perfectly exemplifies Motoya’s sense of measure and control in handling the image of the bulging curtain and balancing it with the fact that the story’s protagonist is the only woman in the group at a business meeting.
Mysticism is another technique used by Motoya to grab and hold the reader’s attention, which she uses to heighten the disturbing nature of the situations she captures in her stories that we might otherwise overlook. The magical elements found throughout The Lonesome Bodybuilder work to make reality clearer, whether it is through a subtler quasi magical-realist approach, like the concern in the first several pages of “Exotic Marriage” of a husband and a wife beginning to look identical with time, or the fantastical and touching transformation of the husband into a flower, where
the only proof that it had once been [her] husband [was] the mountain peony’s stem […] growing straight out of a pair of his underwear.
(“Exotic Marriage”, p. 128)
The possible and the impossible exist in a fine balance in The Lonesome Bodybuilder, and not only because things that we think can occur only in dreams are able to take place out in the open, amid the thrash of everyday life. In fact, it is the close proximity of condemnable behavior, of things like stereotyping and gendering, to the seemingly textbook definition of the impossible that brings out the ridiculousness of the former.
Later in the collection stories like “Exotic Marriage” and “Paprika Jiro” turn The Lonesome Bodybuilder in a more sombre direction, though without sacrificing the quality of fairytale wonder that Motoya had built up to that point. It is the second to last story, “Q & A”, which introduces a new dimension to the collection by pushing the boundary between author-as-creator and author-as-character, presenting the reader with an interview with a fictional magazine columnist and personality that comes daringly close to feeling like it is Motoya stepping out of the framework of her own stories and is hurriedly whispering to the reader to take note and remember, to not make the same mistakes as the characters she created to serve as an example.
One of Motoya’s key concerns lies in capturing the pivotal moment of realization, a moment that occurs in every single story. Regardless of whether it happens through a spark of compassion and understanding or not, The Lonesome Bodybuilder reminds us that humour is a valid and healthy way of processing the problematic and unhealthy, of laughing past the issues into the void of shared struggles that we all come out of to tell our stories. Motoya invites her reader to marinate her stories in their mind but also to be somehow more than her characters, most notably the protagonist of “Typhoon” who concludes the surreal story with the following:
The old guy was found on the pavement all flattened out the next day, but I still tell this story anytime I’m out drinking and need something to entertain the group. If I tell it right, the part that goes, “Cattchyalater! Catchyaaa! Laterrr!” is always a real crowd-pleaser.