People have been telling me for ages that I should read Yukiko Motoya, that I would enjoy her quirky, magically realistic style. So she has been on my reading list for some time now, and yet I never manage to get around to reading her work. I always have so many other things to read! Things that were on the list first, things I need to read for work, things written by authors who are already my favourites which means they are naturally higher up on my list of reading priorities. So Motoya never seemed to get a foothold in my reading world.
And then I went to London earlier this year to talk to people about manga and translation, a thing I do for free on Twitter, so I was more than a little surprised than anyone would actually pay me to do it, much less fly me across an ocean. But they did, so I jumped on a plane to tell some British people why manga is important and interesting as a genre in itself and what the challenges in translating it are. (Spoiler: It has a lot to do with the pictures part of the equation.) The festival was mostly a celebration of fiction without pictures, though, so I was surrounded by great authors and amazing translators for a week, which was such a treat. I got to hear about so many interesting books and translation projects and challenges from people doing fascinating work in the world of Japanese art and literature. It was like I was living all books all the time. I very much recommend the experience
At the public events, there were of course books by all these incredible artists and translators on sale, and I think we all know by this point that I am unable to resist a table full of books. So yes, I did stock up, and yes, I was glad that I had opted to bring the large suitcase over the medium-sized one I was initially considering taking. And one of the books weighing that medium-sized suitcase down was Asa Yoneda’s translation of a collection of Yukiko Motoya’s stories. It was fate. Finally, I would read Motoya.
Several months after the fact. My reading priorities did not change, friends! All that changed was the new sense of guilt I felt after returning from London and seeing the book on my shelf, waiting to be read. Baby steps, I told myself. You have the book, at least. Be patient and the time to read it will come. (I am very “the universe wills it” when it comes to books, apparently.)
And then the time did come. So I read it. And, friends, it is very good. All those people who told me I would like Yukiko Motoya were not mistaken. I like her very much indeed. One of my favourite kinds of storytelling is to reveal the outlandish and extraordinary behind the everyday, and Motoya delivers this in spades. The first story “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” made me want to take up bodybuilding and also gave me a weird kind of insight into the part of myself that pushes towards extremes in all things. The protagonist watches a boxing match with her husband and realizes that it’s not that she’s not satisfied with him, she “just wanted to luxuriate in some taut muscle.” So she gets into bodybuilding in a very serious way. Even as she bulks up, her husband is oblivious to the changes in her until he is basically forced to notice her.
This idea of seeing and being seen, of understanding yourself and your relationship to others shows up throughout the collection, alongside the keenest eye for detail I’ve seen in a while. Motoya knows just the right bits of the situation to highlight to make it both real and surreal at the same time. “An Exotic Marriage” is the longest story in the book and the most surreal in a way. The protagonist’s husband’s face keeps changing, and then her own face changes to match his. She takes over aspects of him in ways that surprise and discomfit her. And yet she is strangely accepting of the process of becoming his twin. “I was like the ghost of a snake that had already been eaten up by many other snakes, and I’d lost my own body long before getting swallowed up by my husband. Didn’t that explain why I didn’t much mind whether it was a husband I was living with or something only resembling a husband?”
Each story is a delight and a surprise in its own way. In “Paprika Jiro”, a band of action movie type fighters descend on an outdoor marketplace out of the blue, destroying everything with their battling before rolling out into the desert. “How To Burden the Girl” has all the girlfriends of the world challenge their boyfriends to duels to the death by a river. A pack of white dogs keep a woman in a cabin in the middle of nowhere warm throughout the winter in “The Dogs” while the nearest town becomes increasingly hostile to dogs after a series of attacks. The protagonist of “The Straw Husband” is indeed married to a man of straw. “The Fitting Room” gives us an incredibly dedicated boutique clerk doing whatever she possibly can to make her customer happy. Everything is just slightly off until you realize that actually, everything is incredibly off.
The stories in this collection are grounded in the sphere of the domestic, the commonplace, and then suddenly twist around to reveal an unexpected world, an unimagined outcome to an utterly ordinary situation. The writing is lyrical and charming, and Yoneda’s translation deftly captures the subtle humour that runs through the book. And it’s endorsed by Carmen Maria Machado, who can do no wrong in my world after the miracle that is Her Body and Other Parties. So you should probably just read this one.
(Apparently, this was published in North America as The Lonesome Bodybuilder, so NA pals, check it out here.)