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.
The longest story, An Exotic Marriage, was both fascinating and frustrating to read. The marriage described within could be considered an abusive marriage, but a curiously passive one. The wife is very clear that her husband is a loser, but she seems content to stay in the marriage, but just barely. He doesn’t do anything, and his self-esteem is so fragile, she has to constantly tiptoe to not offend it or him. She does everything in the marriage, and it’s hard not to get impatient with her. An underlying theme in this story is how she’s starting to look like her husband. Does she mean literally? I wasn’t quite sure. She hears of another couple where this happened, and then how the wife got her face back. It involved stones and a bit of mysticism, and again, it wasn’t explained–just presented as fact. Later on, the husband openly acknowledges that he fears his wife is going to leave him, and then he makes sure she doesn’t. It’s a really odd journey, and I found myself becoming so impatient with the wife for allowing life to just happen to her. Not just being in the marriage, but everything in her life. I know part of that impatience is because of my own passivity–there’s nothing like projection. I’m not going to give away the ending because it’s best to be read and because I wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s a surprise, I’ll say that much. This was a messy story and not one of my favorites. It felt as if Motoya was trying to cram so many things into one short story. I felt it should have been a novel or at least a novella, and it ended rather abruptly.
The story that I’ve thought about the most since reading the book is The Women. First of all, the protagonist is a man. There is a few other where this is true, but most of the protagonists are women. Second, it’s about a relationship from the man’s point of view. It’s a grim tale as are most of the stories, but it’s also a puzzling one. He’s happy with his girlfriend, apparently, but she…isn’t? It’s hard to say. She challenges him to a duel by the river. I had to reread the beginning of this story because I couldn’t remember the details, which is strange for me. However, there’s a haze surrounding this story that is appropriate because the story itself is like a dream. Once again, no explanation as to why she wants to duel, which confuses the protagonist as well as the reader (me). As they walk along the river, there is another couple that looks like them with the man crying and the woman leading him around by a leash (fastened to his top button). Later on, there are many couples of varying ages in the same situation, but the protagonist is still confused. He tries to talk his beloved out of the duel idea, but she will not be dissuaded. Of course, he doesn’t want to hurt her, but she keeps coming at him. I won’t tell you what happened at the end, but it still haunts me.
I really liked that Motoya didn’t set up the scene in any way. She didn’t say how there’s been a tradition of this, blah, blah, blah. She didn’t try to cajole the reader into buying her vision–she just presented it and expected me to go along for the ride. It’s such a refreshing change of pace, and I can’t help thinking how stuck in the current American model of excusing and explaining. I know for myself, it’s part of the Twitter problem. Or to be more expansive about it, the online problem. There is such an emphasis on making sure everyone is included and embraced, which is great for real life, but stifling as a writer. It’s one reason I stopped writing about politics. I felt as if I couldn’t really say anything without adding infinite qualifiers, and I was constantly censoring myself. I remember a writing contest for YA LGBTQ content, and the rules included that there couldn’t be any negative sentiment about queer issues–even from the antagonist. This included no slurs or homophobic content. I get what they were trying to do, but I was put off by it. I don’t think it’s good art to only present the positive side of things. When I was in grad school for writing, my adviser told me I should change the race of the protagonist of one of my stories because she was a particularly horrifying serial killer. My adviser said if I kept her Taiwanese American, people would focus on that and not on the story itself. I said I refused to write only positive Asian characters (especially as it plays into the model minority myth) and if people had an issue with that, it was their problem.
Motoya presents her characters, flaws and all, and doesn’t excuse or explain them. She has a vision, and even when I don’t agree with that vision, I appreciate her being committed to it. I’ll get to that more in a minute because I have something else to say about the story, The Women. The thing that really made it stand out to me was that in the next story, Q&A (which is not a great story on its own), there’s a short paragraph that refers back to The Women in a way that completely changed how I viewed that story. There’s no preamble to it, and there’s no followup afterwards, but it was enough to make me admire Motoya’s adeptness and her great planning in having these two stories back-to-back.
In the end, I really enjoyed reading this book. Not every story was great, and the sum was better than each individual part, but the biggest reason I’m glad I read the book is because of how imaginative the author is. I’ve gotten into a rut with my writing, and after reading these stories, I am reinvigorated with the idea of trying something new. Maybe I’ll try it in a short story so I won’t feel as invested in it, and it’ll be a no-holds barred if I can manage it. I recommend reading these stories if only because it’s so different than most of the American fare out there.
*I did not with the Sara Paretsky book I bought, Fallout, because she’s top tier, and I might want to read it again. She is one author who has kept her main series, V.I. Warshawski, fresh, which is no easy feat after more than a dozen books.