The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya is a book my BFF, Kat, read and reviewed on Goodreads.com. I noted it as interesting and promised myself I’d read it one day. She gave it to me for my birthday with the joke that I had to read it because I was Asian, and that made me laugh heartily. I was eager to read it because the reviews I read mentioned it was an interesting take on domestic life, but with a surrealistic twist. It’s a collection of short stories, with the flagship story being the titular one. Each story is fairly short (well, most of them are), but they are packed with a lot to think about. I read the whole thing on my flight to Binghamton, but I did not leave the book on the plane as I normally would. If I buy a mystery book at the airport, I normally leave it on the plane or in the airport when I’m done with it*. I like to imagine the flight attendant or airport worker who finds it bringing it home to read in a nice bubble bath. In reality, they probably sigh at the extra work and chuck it in the bin, but let me have my illusions.
The first thing that struck me was how universal some themes are. Many of the stories dealt with the dissatisfaction of being a married woman to what might generously be called a lesser man. In the main story, the husband is a weak and insecure man who is sure his wife is unhappy with him. The story starts with the husband watching a boxing match on TV. When his wife shows interest, he accuses her of wanting to be with the fitter boxer. That piques the wife’s interest in bodybuilding, which she does faithfully over the next…has to be at least weeks if not months. She gets muscular, but her husband doesn’t notice. She wishes her training coach was her life partner, other things happen, and her husband gets suspicious and follows her to the gym. I know that it doesn’t sound thrilling from the way I’ve described it, but it really tugged at my heartstrings. She was engaging in an activity not typically considered feminine, and she was doing it in part to get her husband’s attention. It gave her some self-confident, but her husband’s eternal oblivion of her progress cuts her to the core. A rather shocking thing happens at her job, and she’s talking to her husband about whether or not she’ll be able to keep her job. He’s clearly not listening, and she gets angry. The one thing he likes about her is her hair, so she decided to test him. She told him she cut it pretty short even though she hadn’t touched it, and he said he liked it. She asked how much he thought she cut off, and he said maybe eight inches. It was a short scene, but it really underscored how checked out the husband was. This was before he followed her to the gym.
Another thing I liked was how she wove surrealism in with mundane life. She didn’t make a big deal of it or try to explain it, which is my weakness. I explain way too much shit. I want to give backstory where it’s not needed, and I know it drags down the story. Motoya simply states something and trusts you’ll take it as fact. For example, The Straw Husband, is about the protagonist being married to a straw man. She writes it as plainly as that, and at first, I thought she meant she was married to what we colloquially call a straw man. Or a man who was basically a yes-man. But, no, she meant a literal man made of straw, and she talked about how her friends thought it weird, but she didn’t go into deep detail. Me, I would have gone into her childhood, her dating history, and what made her choose such a man. It’s a bold choice not to do any of that, and it works.