In Yukiko Motoya’s delightful new story collection, the familiar becomes unfamiliar ... At face value, the stories are fun and funny to read, but weightier questions lurk below the surface ... The writing itself is to be admired ... Certainly the style will remind readers of the Japanese authors Banana Yoshimoto and Sayaka Murata, but the stories themselves — and the logic, or lack thereof, within their sentences — are reminiscent, at least to this reader, of Joy Williams and Rivka Galchen and George Saunders.
The stories are funny and creepy; they have a campfire vibe, a brush of the moonless night. ... characters correctly identify weird behavior as weird, but they mistake out-of-bounds, supernatural weird for human, 'life’s a rich tapestry' weird. This normalization gives the stories their irony and their sense of being just a bit off, like a lingering scent of formaldehyde. The reader wonders: Am I the strange one? ... The tales boil down to the problem of balancing empathy with self-assertion—of both practicing kindness and expressing your own needs, and all while the people around you are behaving like wraiths or aliens. Motoya’s protagonists feel quietly radical in a literary moment that seems particularly interested in unpacking various forms of narcissism. They treat the importance of others’ inner lives as a given ... But too much open-mindedness and empathy can become a kind of permeability, and that gets these characters into trouble ... There is acid in Motoya’s surrealism: these women will put up with anything! A draft blows through the tales—loneliness, the most spectral emotion ... At first, The Lonesome Bodybuilder appears most interested in chills and moods; I needed time for its feminism and its political threads to catch the light.
... a refreshing reminder that fiction is an elastic medium, capable of stretching into new and surprising shapes. Motoya is restless among the halls of convention; she appreciates the classic elements of short stories, but is eager to deface them with a brightly colored Sharpie ... The collection is more hits than misses, but a few stories, like 'Paprika Jiro' and 'Typhoon,' skew too quirky and become trivial, though they’re buoyant with fancy ... The other stories are trim and propulsive, itching to move forward, using their surreal elements to interrogate assumptions about intimacy and the complacency of partnership. Even the missteps attest to Motoya’s fictive mandate: to be unburdened by rules and restraints ... Although the stories are often funny, they’re not sarcastic or ironic, and Motoya’s not really kidding ... grant sobering insights into the compromises of love and marriage, the fraught pursuit of art and desire, and the dangers of becoming stuck in the wrong version of your life. Like the work of Aimee Bender and Robert Walser, many of these stories, however whimsical on the surface, possess a sense of dread at their core. But Motoya belongs more to modern oddness than to a fabulist tradition ... Motoya’s collection is a bold broadcast: fiction should be wild and daring, and less beholden to the rigors of logic than to the power and potency of surprise.
Motoya, in Asa Yoneda’s subtle and unobtrusive translation, never uses the word 'yearning', but this story, like so many others, is saturated with a sense of longing. Her characters seem to be searching for the strangest, and most estranged, parts of themselves. While not explicitly feminist, her female protagonists share a capacity for small rebellions, sudden twitches against life-long habits of conformity ... Motoya’s signature, a gift she shares with other contemporary writers such as Carmen Maria Machado or International Man Booker-winner Han Kang, is the striking image — a girl who cries tears of blood, a woman glued to a man in a suit. As a result these arresting, hyper-real stories linger in the imagination and tend to engage your curiosity rather than your empathy ... By the first few sentences of The Lonesome Bodybuilder, you know you’re hearing the voice of a remarkable writer; by the end of 'An Exotic Marriage', you’re certain that Yukiko Motoya’s shivery, murmuring voice will never completely leave you.
The 11 short stories in this collection, translated by Asa Yoneda, range in tone from ominous thrillers to lighthearted folktales, but they always seem to return to a depletion of self ... Motoya’s prose is earnest and casual, as if the writer is trying to convince a friend of a persistent but invisible pest. In The Lonesome Bodybuilder, the pest is always a yawning disconnect between people ... Motoya’s women exist most vividly in their own heads, a state of being that often leaves them feeling alone in a crowd ... Motoya’s eerie touches allow the characters to embrace inconvenient and irrational parts of themselves; at moments when self-doubt is making them flounder, these otherworldly intrusions act as a corrective force.
The stories are openly fantastical, inventing the sorts of feminist fairy tales that were popularized by Angela Carter and have been adapted with wit and ingenuity by writers like Han Kang and Carmen Maria Machado. Ms. Motoya’s writing falls on the quirky end of the spectrum. The voices, in Asa Yoneda’s translation, can be risibly naive ... The novella concludes with a final metamorphosis, one both strange and strangely hopeful.
Motoya’s interest in what motivates her characters to keep secrets or share them is the foundation of this story as well as the book as a whole ... The crown jewel of The Lonesome Bodybuilder is 'An Exotic Marriage,' a novella-length story that was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for Japanese literature in 2016 ... The success of the story, and the collection, is built on passages that recognize the outlandish nature of what is happening without writing about them in an outlandish way. That level of control is perhaps Motoya’s crowning achievement in The Lonesome Bodybuilder. Even the stories that don’t ascend to this level of elegance and precision are steered with confidence and ease.
Here [Motoya] offers a deft combination of magic realism and contemporary irony, dosed with some surreal humor ... A whimsical story collection from a gifted writer with a keen eye and a playful sense of humor.
Motoya’s English-language debut is an unusual but ingenious collection that blends dark humor and bemused first-person narrators suddenly confronted with unhappy relationships and startling realities ... Funny without collapsing into wackiness, these eccentric, beguiling stories are reminiscent of Haruki Murakami and Kafka.