Books / Reviews

From vulnerability to violence, Yukiko Motoya enchants with ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’

by Nicolas Gattig

Contributing Writer

‘You were the first one to let me down. You imprinted me with some kind of habit for being betrayed.”

This meltdown of an advertising executive comes at the end of “I Called You by Name,” one of 11 stories in Yukiko Motoya’s much-anticipated new book “The Lonesome Bodybuilder.”

The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya, Translated by Asa Yoneda.
224 pages
SOFT SKULL PRESS, Short Stories.

Like a bouquet of exotic flowers, her stories are varied and full of surprise, starting out with mundane situations and then turning strange in a way that feels uniquely Japanese. The ad executive, for example, sits in a meeting, when a bulge in a curtain makes her think of a man who left her. Obsessed with the shape behind the curtain, she starts to unravel in front of her team.

“I try to start with a sentence that shows everyday life, an experience most people can relate to,” says Motoya, who sometimes thinks about a story for months before starting to write.

“I slowly depart from the ordinary situation, using a sensitive antenna to find out why sometimes things feel strange or uncomfortable. This is my inspiration.”

The departures are playful, but also take risks with their leaps of fantasy. In “Fitting Room,” a saleswoman in a boutique waits for days on a customer who won’t come out of a fitting room, wondering who — or what — is hiding inside. A sense of anime-flavored fantasy pervades “How to Burden the Girl,” a Freudian story of a woman in love with her father, who engages in a swordfight with an evil gang.

More grounded is the novella “An Exotic Marriage” — the most recent story, which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2016 — in which a woman is shocked to discover she is starting to look like her husband, who may also be a shape-shifting monster.

It takes skill to pull off magical realism — and Motoya is up to the task. Born in 1979 in Ishikawa Prefecture, she moved to Tokyo to study drama and later wrote plays at her own theater company. Her career in fiction spans over 15 years, netting her most of the major literary prizes in Japan. Even Kenzaburo Oe, the grandmaster of Japanese fiction, praised her “acuity in human observation that will be a life’s work.”

Motoya’s talent for voice informs her first-person narrators, both female and male, who have a genuine vulnerability and convincing matter-of-factness as they veer into the fantastic. In “Typhoon,” for example, a young boy at a bus stop sees people floating among clouds in the sky, held aloft by umbrellas that help them soar on the winds. Afterward, the boy comments calmly: “When I pass people on the street who insist on trying to hold their umbrellas open on a stormy day, I know they are far more attuned to things than I am, that they’re fearless and dreaming big.”

As American women writers turn current concerns into dystopian fiction, the stories from Japanese women seem unaffected by the gender strife roiling the West. The Japanese canvas tends to be smaller, more interior and domestic, but also whimsically free in a way that enchants. Most recently, Sayaka Murata made a splash in the Western media with her misfit manifesto “Convenience Store Woman,” whose heroine, Keiko, is hardly invested in empowerment.

Motoya, too, shouldn’t be read with feminist expectations. Her fictional housewives struggle with men or even challenge them to duels, but in her view, the new roles for Japanese women haven’t always brought them more happiness.

“People say now is a good time for more equality,” says Motoya. “But sometimes it feels like women are taken advantage of, like they’re expected to work both on the job and at home. Individually, Japanese women tend to have less self-determination than women in other countries.”

Like most fiction writers, Motoya is wary of being a mouthpiece. Western audiences in particular seem keen on a female writer to speak for modern Japanese women.

“At a literary festival in London, a woman asked me if all Japanese people restrain their thoughts and feelings, like a woman in one of my stories,” Motoya recalls. “I was surprised, because I’d never thought about that. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ Japanese woman. I thought I was just drawing individual characters.”

So what would it look like if Motoya, whom fellow writers and critics have hailed as fearlessly inventive, were to soar up high in her own fiction? What would she write if she were to dream big, like her titular female bodybuilder?

“Without my fears and conflicts and arrogance, I probably wouldn’t write fiction at all,” Motoya says. “I don’t want to write a message of ‘Let’s have a big dream.’ In fact, I try to remove any messages.”

Readers who still enjoy fiction for sheer entertainment should get their hands on these stories. They lead to strange, unexpected places, often making you think, “Where did that come from?”