Whatever else you could say about it, 2018 turned out to be a pretty great year for Japanese fiction, at least for English-reading fans. High among them is Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, a collection of 11 short stories by an intriguing polymath whose work has peppered the Japanese literary and theater scenes for nearly two decades, yet hasn’t managed to break into foreign markets as many of her peers have. Imported Japanese fiction tends to revolve around two entirely different genres: surreal and crime novels, both types well represented with freshly translated books by superstars Haruki Murakami (Killing Commendatore) and Keigo Higashino (Newcomer).
For reasons we’re left to speculate on, English-reading literati haven’t quite embraced the simple joys of Japanese domesticities – or deviations from them – nearly as enthusiastically yet. Remember back when Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was expected to ride an expected wave of Asian family melodrama, making her the Japanese Amy Tan? That didn’t happen, and after visiting the odd, sometimes psychedelic world of Yukiko Motoya’s imagination it seems the mission to popularize safe, traditional shufu fiction has been stopped dead in its tracks.
With a background steeped in playwriting and theater Motoya is more than ready to make her presence felt with The Lonesome Bodybuilder, aided by an excellent translation from Asa Yoneda that scrubs the idiosyncratic stiffness that might have otherwise rendered Motoya’s calculating symbolism impenetrable to non-Japanese readers. Of course, it helps to have your English-language debut fronted with praise by one of Japan’s most distinguished writers, Kenzaburō Ōe, who’s also a Nobel laureate to boot. But even this isn’t that big a shocker, given how this book’s original Japanese release, Arashi no Pikunikku (Picnic in the Storm), netted Motoyo the coveted 2013 Ōe Kenzaburō Prize.
A few of the stories collected here have already appeared in English elsewhere, though mostly in obscure European literary journals. Chances are pretty good this will be your first introduction to the world of Yukiko Motoya, which puts you in an enviable position, indeed.
How should one describe Motoya’s style? It’s complicated (thankfully) as her stories run the gamut from the domestic to the dystopic, sometimes reminiscent of Etgar Keret’s quick turns to absurdism (though without the Israel author’s penchant for pointless nihilism). Nearly all her stories feature some variation on the ideals of modern feminism, both empowering and suffocating, yet still with lingering yearnings for the comforts of patriarchal familiarity.
The eponymous “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” sets the mood, following a lonely housewife beginning a new chapter in her life as a female bodybuilder after watching a boxing match on TV. These fighters, she observes, were specimens of muscularity, so different than that of her husband. “Incredible bodies, both of them. Taut bone and flesh, nothing wasted.” Her husband notices this, asking if that’s the kind of man you really want, isn’t it?” Unsure if he’s being serious or gently teasing, she’s quickly off to the gym with a determination like never before, where countless reps and lots of protein powder help transform her from diminutive to freakishly huge.
Everyone around her soon can’t help but notice the rippling new muscles – everyone, that is, except her inattentive husband. What lengths should we go for acceptance, to be noticed and recognized by those we’re closest to? The ideals of self-empowerment and understanding shouldn’t have to involve micro bikinis and power-posing… but they certainly don’t hurt.
“Fitting Room” might be the most absurdly comic, where the unseen, and insatiable, customer makes impossible demands of the sales clerk, who will, in turn, make impossible attempts to satisfy their valued customer. In “The Straw Husband” a woman contemplates her marriage to a man made of (you guessed it) straw, which only sounds strange until his straw body begins leaking tiny musical instruments. People will do strange things for umbrellas in “Typhoon”, especially if they believe having one lets you fly.
Of all the stories, I’m worried “Q&A” will be the most controversial – and least understood; funny how often these two things go hand-in-hand. An aging advice columnist closes out her decades-long career at at leading women’s magazine by granting one final, conclusive interview from the confines of her hospital bed, which quickly goes off the rails. At one point she appears to advise those lonely hearts to seek their potential soulmate by ‘expanding’ their target groups to everything from newborns, animals and even bicycle saddles.
Before we rush to judgement, her “advice” isn’t the endorsement of pedophilia or even objectophilia it might first appear to be; years of offering utter banalities and superficial, brain-rotting advice have finally broken her brain.
The collection’s centerpiece is the novella-length “An Exotic Marriage”, which netted Motoya a shared 2016 Akutagawa Prize, proving her brand of idiosyncratic surrealism can extend beyond the normal limits of short story fiction. It’s also the second in the collection to focus on a housewife contemplating erasure of her own individuality in the shadow of an inattentive husband and a suffocating marriage. San, the wife, also becomes involved in helping her elderly neighbors, whose equally elderly cat Sansho can no longer control his bladder and urinates all over their apartment. The only solution, they figure, is to abandon the poor incontinent animal away from the city and into “the mountains”.
Fear of replacement looms large throughout, as does the value of something (person, cat, or even an old fridge once thought worthless yet sells online for an unexpectedly high price) appears only relative in its position to other things. After hearing the story of a “snake ball” – where two snakes eat each other’s tails while cannibalizing themselves – San begins to interpret the metaphor literally, rationalizing why she “didn’t much mind whether it was a husband I was living with or something only resembling a husband?”
Motoyo’s narrative slowly gives way to Kafkaesque absurdity we’re not sure can be taken with delight or terror when her husband discovers an addictive iPad game that monopolizes his time, his features slowly begin to dissolve away, becoming a “husband-like thing”. Or possibly we’re witnessing a woman entering a fugue state in order to escape her stifling reality.
Perhaps Yukiko Motoya’s greatest skill is making this transition appear almost seamless, as she does throughout most of the stories collected in The Lonesome Bodybuilder, offering a nice selection of contrasting styles and flavors for those looking for something a bit different from their Japanese fiction. This could be difficult at the moment, however, as there’s a galling lack of her writing available in English. Maybe this volume will help rectify that, as few writers have managed to blend themes of feminism with the psychedelic as joyfully as Motoya.