“Why had I never watched this kind of thing before?” asks the narrator of ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’, the lead story in Yukiko Motoya’s short story collection, Picnic in the Storm. “Boxing, pro wrestling, mixed martial arts—I’d assumed they weren’t for me. How wrong I was. I always do that. I decide who I am, and never consider the other possibilities.”
Originally released in 2012 as Arashi no pikunikku by Kodansha in Japan and The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Soft Skull Press in the US, Picnic in the Storm cements Motoya’s position in the contemporary short story scene, sitting somewhere between Alexandra Kleeman and Carmen Maria Machado in her idiosyncratic depictions of the human experience. What if normalcy is self-imposed and limiting, Motoya asks. What if embracing the weird is to realise your true self?
Translated by Asa Yoneda, the book contains eleven stories that bend our world ever so slightly out of shape, like a warped mirror that catches the light at odd angles. ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ perfects the idea, presenting an ostensibly ordinary couple with ordinary problems—boredom, loneliness, miscommunication, perceived disinterest—and introducing a bizarre extra dimension. In this case, the pursuit of rippling muscle, body oil and tanning lotion, the chemical glare of too-white teeth. Feeling ignored by her husband, the narrator starts a severe regime of weight-lifting and exercise and high calorie consumption, soon evolving into a freakishly muscular physique. Her young male trainer might evoke suspicion but the narrator is clear that it isn’t an affair she is after. “I just wanted to luxuriate in some taut muscle.”
Her colleagues are amazed, supporting her quest by setting up an area at work where she can exercise throughout the day (turning on her only when she fails to intervene when a dog attacks another outside. “A proud bodybuilder never puts their power to practical use,” the narrator explains). Her husband, on the other hand, fails to notice the alarming growth of his wife. “Even though my chest felt so solid it was as though there was a metal plate under my skin,” she complains, “my arms looked huge enough to snap a log in half, my waist sported a six-pack, and from a distance I looked like a big inverted triangle on legs.”
Despite her friends insisting that’s just what men are like, the narrator becomes increasingly exasperated, eventually breaking down in tears after he compliments her on a haircut she hadn’t had. “You only care about yourself,” she tells him. “The longer I’m with you, the more unsure I become of myself. Am I really that uninteresting?” There’s a Lynchian quality to the scene as the narrator strips to her show bikini, that stilted soap opera melodrama of Twin Peaks where the usual decorum of restraint and reserve is lost. The ending is a happy one, the couple stay together, but the lasting sensation is one of perturbation, as though some depth of humanity has been revealed, some concentrated core of desperation that we spend our days trying to ignore.
Elsewhere, the stories of Picnic in the Storm range from the odd to the downright fantastical, from a creature hiding in a changing room cubicle to a creepily prescient old man who rides typhoon winds on his umbrella. ‘I Called You by Name’ keeps the strangeness out of view, the protagonist distracted by a bulge in a curtain during a meeting but never seeing who is behind it. “I’ve wasted too much of my life waiting around for ambivalent beings like you,” she tells it. “Ghosters. Men who let you down easy. You must think you’re really something. Calling yourself a phenomenon.”
An agony aunt gives questionable advice in ‘Q&A’ (“Challenge him to a duel,” she tells someone struggling to escape an abusive boyfriend), an artist locks themselves in an isolated cabin and is visited by a possibly supernatural pack of canines in ‘The Dogs’, and a wife imagines burning the titular character in ‘Straw Husband’—a literal straw man prone to outbursts of rage. Such violence is never far away in Yukiko Motoya’s work. Couples duel to the death in ‘The Women’, strange beings attack traditional markets in ‘Paprika Jiro’, while the gender-flipped oedipal tale ‘How to Burden a Girl’ sees off wave after wave of gang goons, the father and daughter fighting them off with swords and guns.
‘An Exotic Marriage’ tells of Kitae, a woman who, upon examining photographs, realises she is growing to resemble her husband. The relationship becomes weird and strained, their characters bleeding into one another. The slovenly husband becomes suddenly obsessed with cooking, Kitae finds herself drinking beers in front of the TV. The whole thing has an air of performance, as though they are, however consciously, carrying out roles they assume they other wants (or hates). The closing scene is as fantastical as anything in the collection, Kitae breaking the vicious circle of mimicry and second-guessing. “You can stop being husband-shaped now,” she yells. “Take whatever from you want to be!” The husband explodes and changes into a flower, a peony that Kitae drives into the mountains and plants, where he blossoms into something huge and beautiful.
Such a sense of release encapsulates a collection concerned with the truth behind things, asking if it is a moral imperative to crack the surfaces of the superficial world, even if the truths within are icky or gory or downright embarrassing. Do we owe it to ourselves to be faithful to our deepest feelings, or do we owe it to others to smother them dead? “Of all athletes, I most respect bodybuilders,” the trainer in ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ tells the narrator. “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 anyway.” The narrator thinks about it for a while. “But,” she replies, “if you’re always smiling like that, don’t you lose sight of your true feelings? Is it right to smile when you’re so lonely you could cry?”
Picnic in the Storm is out now via Little, Brown (UK), Soft Skull Press (as The Lonesome Bodybuilder in the US) and Kodansha (as Arashi no pikunikku in Japan).
Photo by Rana Shimada