KR Reviews

On The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

Translated by Asa Yoneda. New York, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2018. 209 pages. $16.95.

Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a refreshing reminder that fiction is an elastic medium, capable of stretching into new and surprising shapes. Motoya is restless among the halls of convention; she appreciates the classic elements of short stories, but is eager to deface them with a brightly colored Sharpie. Her stories are about relationships between men and women—seemingly familiar territory, but made strange by the intrusion of surreal elements. In “The Straw Husband,” the narrator’s husband is just that, straw, but his composition is less concerning than his inordinate devotion to his car. The narrator of “An Exotic Marriage” notices that she and her husband are beginning to look alike, but her husband’s investment in game shows is the greater threat to her happiness and autonomy. “Each time I looked at my husband lying on the couch”—she thinks to herself—“I had the strange impression I was living with a new kind of organism that would die if it exerted itself in any way.” His laziness alarms her more than the migration of his features to new regions of his face. In the realms of Motoya, believable behavior is more destructive and upsetting than any surreal occurrence.

The women in these stories find themselves with bad men—not malicious or violent, but complacent, uninteresting, and undeserving of their partners. In the wonderful title story, the narrator returns from the grocery store to find her husband sitting on the couch, watching a boxing match. When he notices that the fight has attracted her attention, he accuses her of lusting after the boxers and their muscled bodies. But she doesn’t want the men—she wants the muscles. Her husband’s jealousy is another form of misperception. Motoya pushes the premise further: as the narrator’s body drastically changes, her husband doesn’t see it. His misperception becomes literal: he can’t grasp what’s right in front of him. With frank sincerity, Motoya makes the exhausted clichés of marriage and intimacy literal, and thus, energetically strange. “Bodybuilder” is the best example, and in “An Exotic Marriage,” a familiar notion of couples starting to look alike turns eerie. “The Women” makes the battle of the sexes literal, too, as women turn into garish embodiments of male desire—but stronger and deadlier. As a leashed man miserably admits, just before being yanked to mortal combat, “This is all because of the desires of men like us.” Such a desire, for a “more exciting lover,” has exciting effects: the women demand duels, then take their husbands and boyfriends down by the river to kill them. Excitement becomes execution.

The collection is more hits than misses, but a few stories, like “Paprika Jiro” and “Typhoon,” skew too quirky and become trivial, though they’re buoyant with fancy. “An Exotic Marriage,” which has some of my favorite elements—a burst of an ending, a Motoya premise built of clever conceit and thoughtful perception—is inexplicably long, with several side-plots cluttering the central story. The other stories are trim and propulsive, itching to move forward, using their surreal elements to interrogate assumptions about intimacy and the complacency of partnership. Even the missteps attest to Motoya’s fictive mandate: to be unburdened by rules and restraints.

Although the stories are often funny, they’re not sarcastic or ironic, and Motoya’s not really kidding. These stories are pointed, possessed by a defiant and often violent spirit. Their tone is light and good-natured, but they mean to modify by force the received notions of relationships and their default mode of subjugated women. Motoya likes her fiction to swerve, not drift or meander, and she doesn’t have patience for wandering. The ride can be anxious but never dull. Sometimes the rules of the world change on the spot. For instance, in “Fitting Room,” a boutique employee, faced with a customer who won’t leave the changing room, remembers that the “fitting rooms were moveable, on wheels.” Motoya wastes no time: the employee wheels the fitting room and customer out of the shop. The story ends on a note of limitlessness: “Anything at all could turn out to be something beyond my wildest dreams.”

In spite of—in fact, because of—her affection for the odd and comic, Motoya’s stories grant sobering insights into the compromises of love and marriage, the fraught pursuit of art and desire, and the dangers of becoming stuck in the wrong version of your life. Like the work of Aimee Bender and Robert Walser, many of these stories, however whimsical on the surface, possess a sense of dread at their core. But Motoya belongs more to modern oddness than to a fabulist tradition. In her stories alienation is less a threat than a feature of contemporary life. Authenticity is a reclamation project, and her characters go to great lengths to prove their agency. To Motoya, complacency is not only a violation of selfhood but also of fiction. The option to explode a life or a story greatly appeals to her. One woman puts it to her husband directly: “‘You can stop being husband shaped now! Take whatever form you want to be!’ The distending body of my husband exploded with a loud pop. It settled to the floor in countless small clumps.” Freed, he turns into a mountain peony. The narrator is surprised, but not at the transformation—she just never knew he wanted that. That entreaty—Take whatever form you want to be!—might as well be Motoya imploring writers to make fiction pop and burst, to send it rolling out of the boutique and down the hill, curtain flapping. Motoya’s collection is a bold broadcast: fiction should be wild and daring, and less beholden to the rigors of logic than to the power and potency of surprise.

Walker Rutter-Bowman received his MFA from Syracuse University. He has received fellowships from the Edward Albee Foundation and the Ucross Foundation. His work has been published in Tin House Online, Nashville Review, Harvard Review, and Full Stop. He currently lives in Washington, DC.