Written by Yukiko Motoya | Translated by Asa Yoneda
‘Tomoko had married him of her own free will. Some of her friends had advised her to reconsider, but most people didn’t even seem to notice that he was straw.’
Two months ago I had already decided on my favourite novel, and novelist, of 2018: Convenience Store Woman and its author Sayaka Murata. I loved this book for its daring to go against the norm, something that is often far more punk rock here in Japan than it is in the West. But as we approach the year’s finish line another contender for best book has come out of nowhere and stolen my heart for the exact same reason.
Here is The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (Known as Picnic in the Storm if you have the UK version), a book similar to Convenience Store Woman in theme and intention but hugely different in execution. With stories that pack a feminist punch and often raise a mirror up against the issues surrounding patriarchal Japan and some of its questionable social values, this book is often a hilarious, heart-squeezing riot.
Packing a Feminist Punch
‘I took his little hand and said, “You only care about yourself. The longer I’m with you, the less sure I become of myself. Am I really that uninteresting?”’
The #MeToo movement has been slow to gain any traction in Japan, and a surface level observation implies a large amount of passivity with regards to sexism in a country that is still dangerously patriarchal. However, that does not mean that the woman are silent, and Motoya proves that with a selection of wonderfully clever, charming, and witty stories often aimed straight at the status quo in all of its toxicity.
This book is a collection of short stories; the first of which is the titular The Lonesome Bodybuilder in which a woman, ignored by her lethargic husband, quickly develops an obsession with bodybuilding. She attends the gym ritualistically until she becomes a goliath figure, and all the while her husband fails to notice her transformation.
‘This is all because of the desires of men like us.’
The metaphors at play here, and in the other tales, range from the obvious to the subtle, and all end in hilarity and often outright strangeness. Our protagonist’s dramatic body change, and her husband’s clueless nature, will undeniably speak to those woman and men who have had a haircut or worn a new jacket and received no comment from their spouse. But dig deeper and you see a woman so desperately sick of the expectations of society that she stretches out her body, choosing to take up more physical space rather than less – as is too often expected of women.
Equally Comic and Tragic
The book’s greatest triumph is its ability to be occasionally laugh-out-loud funny in its surrealism, reminding me at times of Monty Python, but all the while providing a message that is very powerful, very resonant, but often ignored. Motoya’s confidence to execute her stories in this way is palpable and worthy of the highest praise.
Unfortunately, not all of the stories hit equally hard. The longest tale in the book, for example – An Exotic Marriage – failed to leave any lasting impression, despite some moving and intriguing passages regarding the tragically numb life of a salaryman and his housewife.
However, there are far more hits than misses in this fantastic collection. My own personal favourite being I Called You by Name, the small story of a woman chairing a meeting in her office but growing increasingly distracted by this bulge in the curtain, perhaps betraying someone hidden behind it.
‘Why don’t you show yourself already? You can’t possibly think people are going to keep looking for you forever? I was sick and tired of it all. I wanted to get to a world where there was only yes or no. Ones and zeros.’
As the story builds, the bulge shifts and shrinks as our protagonist admits to herself that the bulge is in her mind – a representation, I believe, of the things in life she urges for: a husband and a child – these, however, are things she has been forced to ignore in order to be taken seriously professionally. This is a very real sacrifice that women around the world are led to feel that they must make.
This and several other stories burrowed deep and dug into my heart in a very real way. There are always new angles to observe in feminism’s fight against the patriarchy, and I urge every man and woman across the world to take in the lessons taught in this collection. They are told with humour and bitterness in equal measure, translated phenomenally well by the wonderful Asa Yoneda, and should absolutely not be ignored.
Published by Soft Skull Press.