The Lonesome Bodybuilder

The Lonesome Bodybuilder
Japanese Titles: 嵐のピクニック (Arashi no pikunikku) and 異類婚姻譚 (Irui kon’in tan)
Author: Yukiko Motoya (本谷 有希子)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Years: 2015 & 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 209

The Lonesome Bodybuilder collects eleven stories originally published in two books by the celebrated author Yukiko Motoya, whose writing has been winning prestigious awards in Japan for more than fifteen years. I’m a fan of Motoya’s work, and I was looking forward to the day when it would appear in translation. I couldn’t have asked for a better rendition into English than Asa Yoneda’s lively and engaging translation, and The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a wonderful introduction to the work of a fascinating writer.

The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is an eighteen-page journey. The protagonist feels as if her husband is ignoring her, so she takes up bodybuilding. She ends up becoming quite serious about it, but her husband fails to notice the dramatic changes of her body. After a traumatic incident in which she’s too afraid to use her physical strength to stop a dog from attacking another dog outside the store where she works, she begins to embrace the idea that her training has no practical purpose other than to make her feel good about the way she looks. This sense of agency leads her to confront her husband, who finally makes an effort to be a better partner. At the end of the story, the narrator has started to build her self-confidence as well as her muscles, and she’s even beginning to consider adopting a dog of her own.

While the narrator of “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” learns to strengthen her connections with the people around her, “The Dogs” is a surreal celebration of self-imposed isolation. The narrator lives in a cabin in the woods that she’s borrowing from a friend while she does a vague sort of work that involves tweezers and a magnifying glass. She lives with dozens of bright white dogs that emerged from the forest and now share her space and sleep with her at night. When she goes to a nearby village for groceries, she learns that people have been going missing, and she fantasizes about what it would be like if everyone were to disappear. Her wish comes true as winter sets in and snow begins to fall, leaving her alone with dozens of mysterious dogs. The narrator treats all of this as if it were perfectly natural, and it’s clear that she couldn’t be happier.

The longest story in the collection, “An Exotic Marriage,” seems to be a straightforward account of a mundane marriage but devolves into troubled confession regarding a genuinely bizarre situation. Several people close to the narrator have remarked that she has begun to physically resemble her husband, an observation that she finds disturbing. Although he’d already been married once, her husband seemed like an ordinary person until they moved in together, at which point he stopped making any attempt to hide his idiosyncrasies. He watches variety shows on television for hours on end before eventually transferring the target of his obsessive attention to a mobile game that the narrator can’t understand. His unapologetic monomania leads him to quit his job. As he spends more time at home and becomes even more eccentric, his appearance begins to shift. The narrator is understandably concerned about what it might mean that she’s come to look like him, but she’s at a loss for how to keep her sense of self intact. At the end of the story, she realizes that her husband’s transformation is more dramatic than she suspected – and that he may not be human at all.

The stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder toe an odd and uncanny line between slipstream horror and emotional comfort food. Although some of the situations the protagonists find themselves in are strange and uncomfortable, Motoya’s writing doesn’t convey any particular sense of dread. The lighter stories play games with popular culture, humorously exploring questions such as “What would it be like to be a generic minor character in a video game?” and “What if your anime girlfriend were real?” As a collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder carries on a conversation about the tenuous relationships people forge with difference, and most of the narrative tension comes from the ways in which this difference manifests in various identities, ontologies, and communication styles that may not always be compatible or even fully comprehensible. Each of the eleven stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder is interesting and unexpected, and Asa Yoneda’s skillful translation of Motoya’s sparkling prose is a joy to read.

Vibrator

Vibrator

Title: Vibrator
Japanese Title: ヴァイブレータ (Vaiburēta)
Author: Akasaka Mari (赤坂 真理)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 155

Vibrator is not an easy book to read.

In the first twenty pages, the 31-year-old bulimic narrator describes her strategies for throwing up after meals. Apparently, the trick is to not allow the food to digest. Soda water helps too, it seems. Alcohol complicates matters, but it’s difficult to give up entirely, because it makes the voices go away.

As you might imagine, the narrator of Vibrator has Issues. The first third of the novel is occupied by her nerve-wracking, stream-of-consciousness jabber. What’s perhaps most disturbing about the narrator’s ranting is not that it so accurately reflects narratives of self-hatred and self-doubt, but that the circumstances she describes make her anxieties and self-destructive behavior seem entirely justified. Being an independent woman in a man’s world is hard, and the narrator knows that her beauty will fade as she grows older, thus depriving her of her only advantage over her male colleagues. Moreover, as a female journalist, the narrator is placed in situations in which she must comment not as a professional but as a representative member of her gender, which she finds banal and insulting. To anyone – male or female – who’s ever resented her job or lamented her relative lack of professional success, the narrator’s complaints will be painfully familiar.

One snowy night, after buying a liquid dinner in a Family Mart on her way home, the narrator almost runs headlong into a tracker-trailer on the edge of the convenience store parking lot. The driver, a twenty-something named Okabe, invites her into the cab. The narrator wants to spend more time observing the white world generated by the snow flurry, and she feels as if she has nothing to lose, so she accepts his offer. They talk while drinking, and before long they’re on the road to the northern Tōhoku region. Sex is involved, but more interesting than the smut is the intimacy of Okabe’s story about dropping out of high school to become a low-ranking member of a yakuza clan.

Vibrator is not quite a love story. At the end of the book, there’s no indication that the sudden relationship between the narrator and Okabe will amount to anything beyond the single ride they share. Still, it’s lovely to witness the garbled voices in the narrator’s head slowly fade as she is calmed by vibrations of the truck’s engine (the “vibrator” of the title) and Okabe’s placid self-assurance. Even if the narrator is unable to achieve any deep or permanent connection with Okabe, her escape from her own head and engagement with the landscapes flashing past the truck’s windows is satisfying and meaningful.

Vibrator may not an easy book to read, but it’s certainly worth reading, if only to witness the skill with which the translator, Michael Emmerich, has rendered its narrator’s many voices.

If you live in the United States, Hiroki Ryūichi’s 2003 cinematic adaptation of Vibrator is streaming on Netflix. The film features gorgeous long shots of the Japanese countryside, and the director effectively removes the characters from the narrator’s incessant stream-of-consciousness commentary, which creates an entirely different atmosphere for the story. Tom Mes highly recommends this movie, and it’s a beautiful interpretation of the novel.