Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya; translated by Asa Yoneda. (Soft Skull Press)
The stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder range from slightly bizarre to all-out bananas.
While I love reading surrealistic stories, it’s hard to build the whole foundation on the strange. The overall effect will crumble if there isn’t any substance, and in this collection it’s clear Yukiko Motoya understands this problem as well. She has presented a set of stories focusing on the emotional, while peppering in moments of absurdity. The core of every story is about isolation and a deep desire to make a human connection, and because of that they flourish under her steady hand.
The first story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is a perfect gateway into the collection because of its slight turn to reality. A woman feels like she’s lost the connection to her husband. He is in a rut where he watches TV every night and doesn’t pay her much attention, and in turn she finds herself dragged into a joyless day-to-day routine. She then comes across an ad for 100 fitness visits for free. She goes in and her trainer expects her to say she wants to lose weight, but she surprises him by wanting to become a bodybuilder. It’s not that she wants to compete, but just wants to know what it would be like to have that kind of a body. It’s also clear she’s doing it to win the attention of her husband again. It’s not that she thinks he’s extremely attracted to that body type, but for her demeanor it was a major change; and yet, he is too stuck in his ways. They do reconnect in the end, but it’s not because of her physical transformation. It’s because she forces a conversation. Motoya shows us that the quickest way to obtaining the human connection you’re seeking is to simply start talking. And she succeeds in this by giving us a circumstance that is hilarious, entertaining, and poignant.
This is a fantastic collection. The stories have me remembering small details weeks after I finished the book.
Later on, we see a similar take on having a conversation, but it revolves around the idea of perception. In “How to Burden the Girl,” a young man falls in love with his neighbor. To him, she is perfect. He spies on her from his home and, based on the situations he sees, he creates a lore around her, letting himself fall further in love with her. It’s not until he hops the fence to profess his undying love that he actually speaks to her for the first time. This is when we realize that perception certainly is not reality. This story shows that you can build fabricated realities in your head and fall in love with something that does not exist. You create an idealized version of a person and then are ultimately disappointed when the real version doesn’t live up to this unobtainable image. There is murder, sex, and intrigue in this story, but in the end it’s about a guy who fell in love with a version of someone who never existed, and I’d wager that most of us can relate.
The only trouble spot in The Lonesome Bodybuilder for me was “An Exotic Marriage.” The premise of the story was compelling in that a woman was afraid she’d started looking like her husband. (This is actually a conversation my wife and I have. I’m of the opinion that you don’t grow to look like your partner, but you choose someone who already has similar features that become more prominent as you age. The reason you pick someone who already kind of looks like you is because your face is one you’re used to and seeing those features on someone else subconsciously puts you at ease. It’s all a theory, so please tell me if science tells me I’m wrong.) At the same time that she is having a mid-marriage crisis, she is helping a neighbor try to find a humane way to get rid of her cat. I liked the story, but considering it is close to a hundred pages, I thought it was a bit long-winded, especially being placed in the middle of pithy, Murakami-like stories. It wasn’t quite weird enough, human enough, or short enough for me to totally buy in.
Overall, this is a fantastic collection. The stories have me remembering small details weeks after I finished the book. Yukiko has struck a fine balance between the sincere and the silly; and while our world doesn’t have people flying away on umbrellas or a woman spending days in a changing room, it does have moments of complete strangeness. These stories, embracing the absurd, are a better reflection of life than most pieces of fiction I read these days.