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.