translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda
A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique–which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking businessmen struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon–until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A woman working in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room–and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her husband’s features are beginning to slide around his face–to match her own.
In these eleven stories, the individuals who lift the curtains of their orderly homes and workplaces are confronted with the bizarre, the grotesque, the fantastic, the alien–and, through it, find a way to liberation.
These surreal yet grounded stories are exactly my kind of thing.
Many start in the mundane – a happy or unhappy marriage, a scene at work. One strange but believable thing happens, then something slightly more outrageous, until Motoya leads you down a path to the absolutely absurd. It’s ridiculous, but you can’t imagine the story spinning out any other way.
Themes include knowing yourself, how we are changed by contact with other people, and the place of women in Japanese society. Even more so than in the West, Japanese women are expected to be wives and mothers first, putting husbands and children before themselves. These women are the protagonists and navigate their way through a world where many things don’t go as planned.
The centerpiece, and one of my favorite stories, is the novella An Exotic Marriage. A wife realizes that she and her husband look more similar as time goes on. At first she thinks it’s learned mannerisms or maybe sharing a taste in clothes, but one day she looks in the mirror and sees that her features have slipped slightly out of place, closer to those of her husband. As soon as she notices they jump back into position, like kids caught doing something they shouldn’t, and the story spins on from there.
I was worried the longer length would mean absurdities would pile up to the point of being unbearable, but instead they’re more nuanced and layered. The page count is a strength, giving Motoya more room to develop characters and sub-plots and draw us into the world. An Exotic Marriage won the Akutagawa Prize, arguably the highest literary honor in Japan, and it’s easy to see why.
Yoneda is an accomplished translator and her skill is well applied here. I am in the unusual position of being able to read in both the source and target languages, but I never felt the Japanese poke through nor the need to back-translate. The reader is in good hands.
All in all I immensely enjoyed The Lonesome Bodybuilder. It’s perfect for when you want to read something delightfully different.
Thanks to Soft Skull Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.