“My mission is to stay as free and unfettered as possible.” Yukiko Motoya so commented on her career and creative process during an interview for Granta. The course of that career certainly indicates a restless curiosity. Motoya was born in snowy Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan but later set out for Tokyo, where she completed an acting course and worked as a voice actor for a spell before deciding to zero in on writing novels and plays.
Motoya founded her own theater company and has also set aside time for various other endeavors, like hosting a radio show and a televised documentary series. Her varied work has resulted in numerous accolades, and, most recently, the release of The Lonesome Bodybuilder, the first book-length English translation of her fiction. Asa Yoneda, the book’s translator, has signal-boosted a story collection whose off-kilter style strenuously upholds Motoya’s stated mission.
The book’s 11 tales are, in one way or another, about the fettering of freedom. Many of the characters seek lives yet unlived, or lives once lived but later forgotten. They confront their stifled independence: velleities give way to keen yearnings, desires twist toward violence. When something akin to freedom is gained, it’s often vague or ostensible, but the impediments to that freedom are surveyed in great detail. Motoya’s emphases include tedious relationships, workplace gender dynamics, and the soporific entertainments and culinary distractions of our modern age.
In these contexts, Motoya’s characters come to recognize the possibilities they’ve denied themselves. The protagonist in the title story grows fond of combat sports and wonders why this didn’t occur much earlier. “I always do that,” she admonishes herself. “I decide who I am, and never consider other possibilities.” In another story, “I Called You by Name,” an ad exec compares her past and present, recalling her earlier determination to never allow herself to “be bound by anything as common as common sense.”
Motoya’s prose advances a similar principle. She pushes her stories to surreal ends and cross-pollinates wry and solemn tones. Her command of vivid detail comes through in close studies of perception and psychology, and in the conjuring up of outsized brutalities. In “The Women,” the eponymous characters are transformed into blood-thirsty warriors through the escalating fantasies of their partners. Motoya sets a scene involving “several hundred couples engaged in a melee defying all imagining” by inventorying the “screams, the clash of weapons, men begging for their lives from lovers who seemed beyond language, belated confessions of love…” The story concludes in a tragedy, but it’s later reversed by a single line in a different story.
This sense of unpredictability traverses the entire collection, and yet the stories rarely seem desultory. This is abundantly illustrated in “An Exotic Marriage,” a novella about a woman, San, who begins to fear that her husband’s identity is blending with her own. The husband, San explains, waited until after their marriage to reveal the depths of his incuriosity. She endures this at first but later partakes in it, finding herself pulled into her husband’s orbit—his daily consumption of variety shows and deep-fried food. An insidious exchange of traits and gender stereotypes unfolds and the boundaries between the two characters become porous. Facial features intermittently disassemble, prompting San’s panic. At other points, the couple are recast as ravenous snakes. As the strangeness mounts, San observes her identity as something willed and imposed. “Every time I noticed myself acting as though that was who I’d been all along, a chill went up my spine,” she confesses. “The fact that I couldn’t stop, even if I tried, was proof that it wasn’t actually a matter of anything as benign as acting or pretending.”
Motoya also discerns the way the pursuit of freedom can be corrupted into cruelty or madness. Other nuances arrive in “Paprika Jiro,” a story that conveys a fondness for mercantile traditions. Motoya locates a venerable sense of ancestry and inherited duty in the story’s young market trader. And in “The Dogs,” the protagonist gains a sort of freedom, but this sunders threads both social and psychic; something ambiguously terrible rises in their place. These two stories stand out from the others, which, at times, are held back by traces of redundancy or ideas that are almost excessively legible.
“The Dogs” avoids such risks by dint of its elusiveness and subtlety. It also indicates the range of Motoya’s storytelling style by unveiling additional powers of suggestion and atmospheric description. Its remarkable ending urges one to reexamine the mysteries of the story: the uncanny dogs, the fine-drawn snowbound setting, the temporal ellipses—all those details that seem to delicately conceal the protagonist’s frayed psychology. It’s also the collection’s penultimate entry. Even as The Lonesome Bodybuilder approaches its conclusion, new and winding pathways unfurl.
Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder is available from Soft Skull Press.
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.