Yukiko Motoya’s Surreal World of Alienated Characters

The unsettling stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder are deeply preoccupied with the yawning disconnect between people.

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No one in Yukiko Motoya’s new story collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder, appears capable of seeing herself in the mirror. In the opening story, a meek saleswoman who’s taken up bodybuilding practices flexing, but drops the pose “without having been able to look my mirror self in the eye.” In another, a bored housewife notes that sometimes she “looked in the mirror and was reminded of a blank postcard.” Marriage, she concludes, has made her resemblance to paper even more notable than before. Relationships often cause Motoya’s characters to suffer a loss of identity.

Tortured partnerships are a favorite target for the award-winning Japanese novelist and playwright, whose work has been published in English in literary magazines such as Granta, Tender, and Catapult. The 11 short stories in this collection, translated by Asa Yoneda, range in tone from ominous thrillers to lighthearted folktales, but they always seem to return to a depletion of self. The characters featured in them aren’t particularly good at intimacy, even if they live in close proximity to spouses, old friends, and co-workers. Motoya’s prose is earnest and casual, as if the writer is trying to convince a friend of a persistent but invisible pest. In The Lonesome Bodybuilder, the pest is always a yawning disconnect between people.

Exploring the struggle against alienation isn’t new ground to tread in literature. Sharlene Teo’s Ponti recently tracked the codependent relationship between two teens, while Neel Patel’s If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi was a collection of short stories that doubled as a study of longing. Motoya’s characters suffer from a deeper affliction than alienation; they’re often lost in relationships and attempting to carve out identities amid ambivalence. They may feel separated from others, but they also feel separated from themselves. These stories, tinged with magical elements, see characters toeing the line between independence and isolation: A teardrop of blood or a shape-shifting rock can unmask deep-seated realities that they’re tempted to ignore in favor of unfulfilling marriages and quotidian chores. There’s a Jungian undercurrent in Motoya’s writing, which seems to prize self-actualization as a way to mend—or end—troubled relationships.

The unsettling way people can lose themselves to mundanity and wrestle to reclaim their selfhood is best illustrated in the novella-length “An Exotic Marriage.” Originally published on its own, it earned Motoya the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2016 and was translated for this collection. For the narrator, San, a bored housewife whose husband ignores her in favor of TV and video games, anxiety is manifested literally—and strangely. Her husband’s features are always shifting on his face, and soon he resembles, variously, a monster, a snake, a new creature, his wife, and then, finally, a mountain peony. “How had I ended up married to a completely different species of being from me?” San wonders to herself, before her features begin to mutate too. Their changing forms force San and her husband to confront the half-truths their marriage is founded on.

San isn’t the only woman in Motoya’s stories who feels neglected and vaguely undefined. The titular bodybuilder lives what seems to be a structured, self-contained life (“I decide who I am, and never consider other possibilities”); bodybuilding is “an exciting new discovery” that expands her world. She comes to have a community of people who support her, and her bulging muscles—her “arms looked huge enough to snap a log in half”—earn her a following at the natural-beauty store where she works. Nevertheless, she feels invisible because her husband never notices her. In “I Called You by Name,” a woman in a business meeting is plagued by the certainty that only she can see a figure lurking in the shadows. A pulsing sense of anxiety pushes the story forward as readers are left to reconcile her male staff’s tepid ignorance with her panicked interior monologue. Motoya’s women exist most vividly in their own heads, a state of being that often leaves them feeling alone in a crowd.

Everyday objects and places are transformed into odd salves for the hyper-fractured lives of these characters, adding a mischievous streak to The Lonesome Bodybuilder. In “Fitting Room,” a saleswoman attends day and night to a mysterious customer who refuses to leave a fitting room. In another, a man sees his girlfriend’s lips begin to bleed a lipstick hue he has fantasized about her wearing. Left to their own devices, these characters may have been content with the status quo, but the universe Motoya builds taunts them with their secret motivations until they’re forced to confront them publicly.

The businesswoman in “I Called You by Name” ends up storming out of her meeting—thinking that, as a child, “I never bothered with boring explanations ... I didn’t let myself be bound by anything as common as common sense”—only to be rewarded with surreal proof that her eyes had not deceived her. In “The Women,” a man is forced to kill his own fantasies after they come to life and challenge him to a duel. Motoya’s eerie touches allow the characters to embrace inconvenient and irrational parts of themselves; at moments when self-doubt is making them flounder, these otherworldly intrusions act as a corrective force.

One of the collection’s most active narrators is the curmudgeonly craftswoman at the center of “The Dogs,” the penultimate story. Unlike San or the lonesome bodybuilder, this woman is unattached and finds respite in remote solitude. Her only companionship comes from a pack of mysterious dogs that, unbeknownst to her, terrorize the nearby village until there is no one left. “I remembered that once, many years ago, I’d asked Santa Claus for a present: to wake up and have the whole world to myself,” she recalls as she wanders the ghost town. Unlike the alienation other characters face within the context of relationships, she is literally all alone, but this only strengthens her sense of self. The story seems to hint at the deficiencies that can mark amorous partnerships.

This criticism becomes pointed when juxtaposed with the final story in the collection, “The Straw Husband,” about a newlywed woman named Tomoko who is unfailingly devoted to her husband, a man made of straw. When the pair suffers their first fight, Tomoko’s husband collapses—his straw limbs crumble at her feet—and she fantasizes about setting him on fire. “Why was I so happy to be married to a bunch of straw?”, she wonders to herself, before finally reassembling him. The question of why she reassembles him looms large, and implies a sort of complicity in misery, an experience common among Motoya’s characters. Tomoko’s animosity toward her straw husband is as brief as it is startling. Her quickly buried feelings recall San’s mutating features. Both women, at the service of their partners’ desires, are reshaped by others—an easy way to become a stranger to yourself in Motoya’s world.