The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya: Shells & Yolk

THE LONESOME BODYBUILDER: STORIES  by Yukiko Motoya, Tr. Asa Yoneda. Nov. 2018. Soft Skull Press. $16.95. 224 pp.

THE LONESOME BODYBUILDER: STORIES by Yukiko Motoya, Tr. Asa Yoneda. Nov. 2018. Soft Skull Press. $16.95. 224 pp.

Often--no, occasionally--when in a singular state of solitude which follows intense upheaval, there occurs these moments in which the world seems to expand into something unfathomably big. The mass movement of a migrating flock of birds sweeps across the sky in a single mercurial gesture as you are stalled at a traffic light during your commute; you wonder if the mundane has always been so grand? The way amber street lamps cause yellowing leaves to appear gilded is nothing short of a gaudy Baroque cathedral and as you walk onward, you know that the footfalls of your boots are those of a giantess to some creature, that it is a marvel that you can cause all the bulbs in the frozen food aisle to light up, accommodating only you.

Yukiko Motoya knows that for those of us that find ourselves in such a state of internal gutting, there is no distinction between what is familiar and what is extraordinary. Her stories of bungled, dreamlike versions of everyday life unmask what is understood to be “normal”, revealing the alien lifeforms which lie just below the skin. Under Yukiko Motoya’s treatment of absurd humor in The Lonesome Bodybuilder, an umbrella, once a pitiful defense against a goliath rain, becomes an opportunity to access the thrills and mysteries of what it means to be alive. A customer in an upscale boutique searches so voraciously for the perfect garment that she is revealed to be otherworldly, for no hunger of that sort could possibly come from a human. A woman who intensely experiences a psychological phenomenon in which she finds faces in everyday objects is driven insane to the point of experiencing the comfort of the watchful eye of something deific. Reading Motoya, you forget what weird is. You forget what is normal. She does not so much break down reality as she allows for its most fantastical potential to bloom.

Detail from  The Garden of Earthly Delights  by Hieronymus Bosch, central panel

Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, central panel

As I’m writing this, I’m watching the eggs I’m planning on eating for dinner bubble up and turn opaque. I once heard a metaphor relating human identity to eggs: if you consider an egg to be a basic human identity, the yolk would be equivalent to the essence of self, the whites to what the attention is not drawn to, and the shell to the impression we give to the world. How bizarre it would be to not know what an egg is, and to discover what is inside! When Yukiko Motoya sets out to write a story, whether it be situated in marital strife or at the market, she takes our mundane observations and concerns, cracks them, and cooks with the weird egg gunk. As if cracking our own eggshells, through pressure, instigation from the world around us, and intense observation we are able to begin to analyze what is going on inside our minds and discover things about ourselves that are often at odds with each other. Often what we find inside is not at all what we even expect from ourselves. The shell offers truly little protection; it is the part of ourselves meant to be cracked.

It seems important to note that under this egg metaphor, the mundane shell of outward identity is inseparable from the egg’s innards, which can be considered to be the soul, the esoteric, or the absurd. Georges Bataille wrote in Erotism: Death and Sensuality, “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him. He goes beyond the objective awareness bounded by the walls of the chrysalis and this process, too, is linked with the turning of the topsy-turvy of his original mode of being.” As Motoya tends to touch on the interpersonal tension of everyday relationships, particularly romantic ones, my own fears about addressing a failed (Is “failed” indeed the right word?) relationship from which I have emerged have prolonged the time it typically takes for me to come up with and set into writing a coherent series of thoughts on a text. In some ways, I am sure that the book contributed to my realizing what was going awry in my own relationship. When Motoya writes of individuals and environments which, through the exposition of their magical alter-egos, her characters are granted the difficult opportunity of simultaneously conjoining reality with magic, objective and subjective, and from this conjunction gaining a new perspective into the struggles of the self. My own ongoing transformation has brought about an uncomfortable (if only because it is unfamiliar) revelation of my own unexpected and contradictory self. Once our routine exteriors are cracked, there is so much space to pour out into, and to be denied the womb-like confines of what we once knew can be overwhelming, isolatory, and exhilarating.

The Giantess  by Joan Miró (1938), drypoint in black on ivory wove paper, 345 x 288 mm. © 2018 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The Giantess by Joan Miró (1938), drypoint in black on ivory wove paper, 345 x 288 mm. © 2018 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

I cannot say I have spill-proof definition for the word “erotic”, but Bataille defined eroticism as, “the disequilibrium in which the being consciously calls his own existence in question.” Little, indeed, is more erotic than the viscous mess contained within the neat exterior of an egg. Motoya’s stories are perverse and erotic in a fetishistic way, in her exploration of taboos and discordant notions of reality. In particular, Motoya has a frequent fixation with amazonian women and rapid, extreme growth. Her fetishized, grotesque amazon women are equated with a false sense of liberation. They fail to transcend their integral loneliness through transformation. They don’t attain fulfilment (if they even seek it) in their relationships.

In the eponymous story “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” a woman seeks to establish her own identity and takes up bodybuilding in order to attain erotic beauty for herself, to experience a tactile sense of comfort that she feels she doesn’t receive. As she becomes more and more muscular, as what she recognizes to be her exterior merges with her interior, her newfound source of strength is coupled with her feeling of alienation from the world around her. In the story “The Women”, women drag their boyfriends down to a river where they collectively and instinctually exact their revenge by becoming monstrous amazonian versions of “what men want”. As their heels sprout stilettos and their tits swell up to hentai proportions, the women continue to be prisoners to their own bodies even under the guise of a parodic liberation. Motoya’s women do not gain power from their strength, so much as they are alienated and asked to resolve their alienations in ways that do not require power from them.

Yukiko Motoya is a very crafty woman. She often will only allow for her subjects to reveal and discover their true selves up until the point at which they realize that they are ciphers for the desires of those around them. Even after shedding exterior skin, the “true identity” of any given character is little more than what characters of relative power might desire or divine. In her novella “An Exotic Marriage”,  a woman battles against her husband as he cedes over his identity and she realizes they are beginning to resemble each other. The novella culminates in the narrator “liberating” her husband, who even in his most liberated form cannot help but take on the traits of the world around him.

It is a terrifying thing to consider that perhaps what is contained within us is indistinguishable from the world outside us. One might hope for a subconscious full of endless beauties and wonders, but to be able to peel back the layers of our identity and find that at the heart of ourselves an endless pool reflecting ever outward into the world that which we glean from it may perhaps be more realistic. Was Narcissus even capable of seeing his own reflection? Could he recognize it for the rest of this whimsical world?


Katherine Beaman