The Road Not Taken: Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder

“My mission is to stay as free and unfettered as possible.” Yukiko Motoya so commented on her career and creative process during an interview for Granta. The course of that career certainly indicates a restless curiosity. Motoya was born in snowy Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan but later set out for Tokyo, where she completed an acting course and worked as a voice actor for a spell before deciding to zero in on writing novels and plays.

Motoya founded her own theater company and has also set aside time for various other endeavors, like hosting a radio show and a televised documentary series. Her varied work has resulted in numerous accolades, and, most recently, the release of The Lonesome Bodybuilder, the first book-length English translation of her fiction. Asa Yoneda, the book’s translator, has signal-boosted a story collection whose off-kilter style strenuously upholds Motoya’s stated mission.

The book’s 11 tales are, in one way or another, about the fettering of freedom. Many of the characters seek lives yet unlived, or lives once lived but later forgotten. They confront their stifled independence: velleities give way to keen yearnings, desires twist toward violence. When something akin to freedom is gained, it’s often vague or ostensible, but the impediments to that freedom are surveyed in great detail. Motoya’s emphases include tedious relationships, workplace gender dynamics, and the soporific entertainments and culinary distractions of our modern age.

In these contexts, Motoya’s characters come to recognize the possibilities they’ve denied themselves. The protagonist in the title story grows fond of combat sports and wonders why this didn’t occur much earlier. “I always do that,” she admonishes herself. “I decide who I am, and never consider other possibilities.” In another story, “I Called You by Name,” an ad ex compares her past and present, recalling her earlier determination to never allow herself to “be bound by anything as common as common sense.”

Motoya’s prose advances a similar principle. She pushes her stories to surreal ends and cross-pollinates wry and solemn tones. Her command of vivid detail comes through in close studies of perception and psychology, and in the conjuring up of outsized brutalities. In “The Women,” the eponymous characters are transformed into blood-thirsty warriors through the escalating fantasies of their partners. Motoya sets a scene involving “several hundred couples engaged in a melee defying all imagining” by inventorying the “screams, the clash of weapons, men begging for their lives from lovers who seemed beyond language, belated confessions of love…” The story concludes in a tragedy, but it’s later reversed by a single line in a different story.

This sense of unpredictability traverses the entire collection, and yet the stories rarely seem desultory. This is abundantly illustrated in “An Exotic Marriage,” a novella about a woman, San, who begins to fear that her husband’s identity is blending with her own. The husband, San explains, waited until after their marriage to reveal the depths of his incuriosity. She endures this at first but later partakes in it, finding herself pulled into her husband’s orbit—his daily consumption of variety shows and deep-fried food. An insidious exchange of traits and gender stereotypes unfolds and the boundaries between the two characters become porous. Facial features intermittently disassemble, prompting San’s panic. At other points, the couple are recast as ravenous snakes. As the strangeness mounts, San observes her identity as something willed and imposed. “Every time I noticed myself acting as though that was who I’d been all along, a chill went up my spine,” she confesses. “The fact that I couldn’t stop, even if I tried, was proof that it wasn’t actually a matter of anything as benign as acting or pretending.”

Motoya also discerns the way the pursuit of freedom can be corrupted into cruelty or madness. Other nuances arrive in “Paprika Jiro,” a story that conveys a fondness for mercantile traditions. Motoya locates a venerable sense of ancestry and inherited duty in the story’s young market trader. And in “The Dogs,” the protagonist gains a sort of freedom, but this sunders threads both social and psychic; something ambiguously terrible rises in their place. These two stories stand out from the others, which, at times, are held back by thematic redundancy or ideas that are almost excessively legible.

“The Dogs” avoids such risks by dint of its elusiveness and subtlety. It also indicates the range of Motoya’s storytelling style by unveiling additional powers of suggestion and atmospheric description. Its remarkable ending urges one to reexamine the mysteries of the story: the uncanny dogs, the fine-drawn snowbound setting, the temporal ellipses—all those details that seem to delicately conceal the protagonist’s frayed psychology. It’s also the collection’s penultimate entry. Even as The Lonesome Bodybuilder approaches its conclusion, new and winding pathways unfurl.

Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder is available from Soft Skull Press.

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