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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

The Lonesome Bodybuilder
(Picnic in the Storm)

by
Motoya Yukiko


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Lonesome Bodybuilder



Title: The Lonesome Bodybuilder
Author: Motoya Yukiko
Genre: Novel
Written: (2015/6) (Eng. 2018)
Length: 209 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Lonesome Bodybuilder - US
Picnic in the Storm - UK
The Lonesome Bodybuilder - Canada
  • Twelve stories from collections originally published in Japanese in 2015 and 2016
  • US title: The Lonesome Bodybuilder
  • UK title: Picnic in the Storm
  • Translated by Asa Yoneda

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Our Assessment:

B : some creative flair and decent narration but not much else to them

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 16/11/2018 Nilanjana Roy
The Guardian . 14/2/2019 Chris Power
The Japan Times . 3/11/2018 Nicolas Gattig
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/11/2018 Weike Wang
The Straits Times . 17/12/2018 Walter Sim
Wall St. Journal . 22/11/2018 Sam Sacks


  From the Reviews:
  • "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. (...) 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. " - Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times

  • "Like soap bubbles, several of these stories catch your eye, but the instant they are gone you forget about them. It’s when Motoya is on the rocky terrain of collapsing relationships that her strangeness finds the friction it needs to stick." - Chris Power, The Guardian

  • "Like a bouquet of exotic flowers, her stories are varied and full of surprise, starting out with mundane situations and then turning strange in a way that feels uniquely Japanese. (...) Motoya’s talent for voice informs her first-person narrators, both female and male, who have a genuine vulnerability and convincing matter-of-factness as they veer into the fantastic." - Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times

  • "Motoya wins over her audience by pushing the absurd to extremes. Perhaps the most resonant stories are those about marriage; Motoya (a playwright as well as an author) excels in putting husband and wife through unusual trials. 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." - Weike Wang, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Many of the stories, deftly translated by Asa Yoneda, are arresting with their strong female lead characters, starting with the mundane before venturing deep into the rabbit hole with surreal twists and turns. At their very heart, however, are everyday struggles that are not only typical in contemporary Japanese society, but identifiable around the world" - Walter Sim, The Straits Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Lonesome Bodybuilder (published as Picnic in the Storm in the UK ...) collects eleven stories -- though one, the Akutagawa Prize-winning novella, 'An Exotic Marriage', is considerably longer than the rest, taking up more than a third of the book by itself.
       Motoya's stories tend to include a few odd details and features -- often contrasting with the seeming normality of the narration, a mix of the absurd and matter-of-fact mundane. So, for example, the husband in 'The Straw Husband', in a relationship otherwise most like any other, is really made of straw ("yes, that straw, stalks of dried rice or wheat, plant matter used as fodder for farm animals, or for bedding -- tied into bundles and rolled into a human shape"), while the narrator of 'The Dogs' describes how: "I didn't like beds, so I slept standing up, leaning against the windowsill" (apparently every night). In 'Typhoon' people take flight with their umbrellas in a great storm -- so many that eventually the narrator finds: "as I scanned the sky, I spotted loads of tiny human figures floating among the dark clouds".
       Most of the central characters are female, with many of the stories strongly influenced by the relationships -- both intimate and more casual and distant -- they are involved in. So, for example, in the (US-)title story the narrator is inspired to take up bodybuilding, sculpting her body through intense exercise, after catching a boxing match her husband was watching on TV. She finds a trainer, and a good deal at a nearby fitness club (a rather unlikely "100 Free Sessions Until You See the Results You Want !"), and dedicates herself to it, with considerable success. She admits that she has lost confidence in herself, living with a perfectionist husband (who doesn't pay that much attention to her, long oblivious even to the dramatic physical change she undergoes). Her coach's admiration for bodybuilders suggests the reason she was drawn to it, even if she wasn't initially aware of it:

     Of all athletes, I most respect bodybuilders, because there's no one more solitary. They hide their deep loneliness, and give everyone a smile. Showing their teeth, all the time, as if they have no other feelings. It's an expression of how hard life is, and their determination to keep going.
       'An Exotic Marriage', by far the longest of the pieces, isn't the most unusual union in the collection (well, until the end of the story), but the nature of the husband-wife relationship, and the wife's reflection on it, is central to it. In fact it features several (fairly traditional) couples, including the narrator and her husband, as well as her brother and his longtime girlfriend. Much of the action is fairly simple and conventional, but through the ups and downs as the story progresses there is the odd feature of the narrator finding that she is taking on her husband's features, finding herself, when the story begins, looking more and more like him. Her husband is something of a mystery man to her, an alien creature she's still trying to figure out: something of a couch potato -- he needs his three hour dose of TV daily he explains to her --, she finds: "Each time I looked at my husband lying on the couch, I had the strange impression I was living with a new kind of organism that would die if it exerted itself in any way". When she talks with her brother's girlfriend about why they haven't gotten married yet the girlfriend notes how she likes being a separate person: "getting married, that means swallowing everything about the other person, the good things and the bad", which is something the narrator can relate to. It becomes clearer and clearer to her that she's settled for the comfortable, easy life her husband's good-paying job affords her, and the domestic island they've shaped for themselves -- settling for and into each other. Only in the final surreal turn of complete reinvention does she reassert her own identity (and find a new one for her husband), a neatly creepy and effective, in its bizarreness, resolution.
       The separation and links between individuals, especially those in a relationship, is a recurrent them: as a character in 'How to Burden the Girl' challenges the narrator of that story: "If you love me, then find out how it feels to be me". But often the other is too other to bridge that gap -- or, as in 'An Exotic Marriage', the characters realize preserving more of their individuality is also important. (The girl in 'How to Burden the Girl' certainly comes with a ... lot of baggage: "Nothing you can say will shock me" the narrator tells her -- but she certainly gives him a run for his money in that regard.)
       'Q&A' even features an agony-aunt relationship columnist -- still at it, even as she lies in hospital, giving it one last go as she tries to respond: "to as many of your questions as humanly possible", summing up, along the way, much of what she's learnt over her long life.
       Motoya does nicely blend the everyday-normal with a touch of the absurd, but, though amusing and/or eye-catching in the instant, there's not too much that resonates beyond that. A story such as 'Fitting Room', where the narrator is a dedicated store employee who can't satisfy a customer who refuses to leave the store's fitting room, even long after the store has closed, is amusing in its absurd excess (and complete with near-slapstick resolution) but that's about all there is to it.
       The stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder are fine, with quirky bits and pieces dosed out (almost too) regularly across them, and the occasional nice bit of reflection or observation, but it's not particularly satisfying as a collection.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 March 2019

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Links:

The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Reviews: Motoya Yukiko: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Motoya Yukiko (本谷 有希子) was born in 1979.

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© 2019 the complete review

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