The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories BY Yukiko Motoya. Soft Skull Press. Paperback, 224 pages. $16.
The cover of The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories

At the beginning of the millennium, Japanese writer Yukiko Motoya emerged as something of a prodigy. In 2000, at twenty-one-years-old, she founded her own theater company in Tokyo. Six years later, she became the youngest playwright to win the Tsuruya Nanboku Memorial Award. Around this time, she also began publishing fiction. The Lonesome Bodybuilder, a new collection, translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda, pulls together a selection of Motoya’s work written between 2012 and 2016. Her work stands out for its ability to emphasize the power of paying attention and, conversely, the problems that arise in that attention’s absence.

In the titular and opening story, a woman decides to start bodybuilding after watching a boxing match. “You need to be aware that public acceptance for bodybuilding is extremely limited. Steel yourself,” her trainer tells her at the outset of her endeavor. “You’ll definitely need your family members to be on board.” But despite this advice, she does not to clue her husband in to her new hobby. While everyone else in her life takes notice of her new muscles, her husband never mentions it. “Only my husband seemed not to notice anything, even though my chest felt so solid it was as though there was a metal plate under my skin,” the narrator complains. “When I asked my coworkers for advice, they commiserated: ‘All men are like that,’ and ‘Mine doesn’t even notice when I get my hair cut.’”

Her reason for keeping him out of the loop is not for convenience sake but for revenge. Long neglected by her workaholic husband, the narrator hopes that her newfound dedication to bodybuilding will show him how it feels to be ignored. It is textbook bad behavior for a married couple, but Motoya masks its domestic banality with her own absurdity. In the end, he finds her gym membership card and follows her there. “Instinctively, I was on my guard, but he wasn’t angry,” the narrator says after she’s been discovered . ”He looked at me with a worried, uncertain expression, and slowly approached me to be by my side. . . . He held me close tight and stroked my hair, over and over.” The tension dissipates as the stress of secrecy falls away. Little is solved, but they are each seeing the other again, at least for the moment. Motoya’s interest in what motivates her characters to keep secrets or share them is the foundation of this story as well as the book as a whole.

In “I Called You by Name,” an unnamed narrator in the middle of leading a work meeting is uncontrollably distracted by a bulge in the curtains, which she believes is a person hiding. Distressed that nobody else seems to notice this likely-imaginary interloper, the narrator struggles with how to handle the situation. “Should I tell them? Maybe I say, Look, someone’s in there, make it sound like a joke. But I didn’t know how; I hadn’t established myself as the kind of person who could say that sort of thing.” She continues to interact with her colleagues while barely paying attention to them. The source of the bulge is never determined, though the narrator is convinced that it is in fact a meaningful entity seeking her specifically. “I refuse to accept for an instant that anything about you could be a figment of my imagination. . . . I’ve wasted too much of my life waiting around for ambivalent things like you.” Whether or not there really is a bulge is not really the point—because the narrator believes in it, she becomes entranced by it. The story is overwhelmed by this strange, subjective reality. Everything else falls away as the narrator finds meaning in the apparently meaningless.

The crown jewel of The Lonesome Bodybuilder is “An Exotic Marriage,” a novella-length story that was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for Japanese literature in 2016. It begins when San notices that she and her husband have steadily come to resemble each other over the course of their relationship. Rather than discuss this with her husband, San reaches out to her neighbor, Kitae, for help. The peculiar phenomenon is one that Kitae is familiar with, as it had happened to another couple she knew. “When she considered the individual features separately—eyes, noses, mouths—the two of them were clearly different people,” Kitae recalled. “But the moment she saw their faces as a whole, somehow they seemed like mirror images.” Reassuringly, Kitae explains that the resemblance doesn’t have to be permanent—her afflicted friend had found a rock to use as a stand-in. The rock now looked identical to her husband, and she did not.

It’s a peculiar move. After Motoya sets up what seems to be an intractable problem at the beginning of the novella, she then more or less solves it quickly. The ensuing vacuum in the plot allows the story mutate in compelling ways. In one enrapturing passage, she examines the ins and outs of an unusual misunderstanding when a woman accuses San’s husband of looking her in the eye as he spits on the street (a grave social offense in Japan). Rather than handle the problem himself, he leaves the mediating work to San:

I chose my words carefully to sound as polite as possible. “People often misunderstand him—because of the way he looks—but he’s not the kind of person to spit at someone deliberately.”

“How should I know?” the woman said, without sparing me a glance. Her expression had grown even more ominous, as though she was trying to squash my husband’s reptile eyes through the power of her gaze. “I assume you’re married. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, acting like this, and at your age."

The conversation between the woman and San goes on for several pages while her husband retreats to the background. Motoya demonstrates the way that small moments like this can be indicative of larger fissures in a relationship and the way that careful attention is a tool not just of discovering meaning but creating it.

The success of the story, and the collection, is built on passages that recognize the outlandish nature of what is happening without writing about them in an outlandish way. That level of control is perhaps Motoya’s crowning achievement in The Lonesome Bodybuilder. Even the stories that don’t ascend to this level of elegance and precision are steered with confidence and ease.

Bradley Babendir is a writer living in Boston.