"The Lonesome Bodybuilder" and a Terrifying Sex Scene
Yukiko Motoya's collection The Lonesome Bodybuilder (translated by Asa Yoneda) is wonderfully strange and darkly profound.
The story "An Exotic Marriage" is about a woman who thinks she's starting to look like her husband and the strange happenings of their marriage. I'd like to write about a very odd sex scene found in it. It's technically consensual and not, strictly speaking, violent, but please be aware that it's disturbing.
That night, my husband left the iPad outside the bedroom. For the first time in months, his hand crept into my bed, under my comforter. I wanted to pretend I was asleep, but then he went to switch on the light, so I reached out and caught his hand almost by reflex.
In the darkness, my husband swiftly removed my pajama bottoms. When I thought about whether the thing that had started to move on top of me was my husband or just something like him, I felt a terrible dread and kept my eyes firmly shut. Then I felt skin slacken, and bodies start to yield, and then I could no longer tell whose sensations I was feeling. Snake ball! My body was starting to coil, and I tried to stop thinking by closing my eyes even more tightly. That only made the boundary between the skin of our entwined bodies even hazier. My husband the snake opened his mouth and swallowed me headfirst, and I desperately resisted his sticky, moist membranes, but soon the inside of his body became a pleasurable place to be. By then I was actively feeding my body to him to be devoured. He seemed to be enjoying eating me up so much that the sensation of it spread to me, and I felt as though I were tasting my own self.
It's certainly revolting. The grossness comes not from secretions or gore, but from an uncanny displacement of sex acts and a wanting of what is clearly unwanted. There's a sense of wrongness wrapped in a desire that is hard to pin down.
Bodies entwining, even feeling the same sensations—that's not beyond a typical description of sex. And the losing of self, uniting to become one being—that's also a common way to talk about sex.
But the scene is far from ordinary. The word "swallow" might appear in another kind of sex scene (Let's not list combinations of parts and orifices!), but it wouldn't function like this. And while "sticky, moist membranes" might imply some of the more stereotypical sex organs, we don't get any specific mention of them. The only named body parts are eyes, skin, head, and mouth. If this weren't happening in a bed, we might doubt that it was sex.
And let's consider the delightfully strange "Snake Ball!" It's not an expected exclamation. More important, it interrupts the tone and rhythm of the scene. If any reader was "getting into" this sex, they're probably not anymore. So, very unsexy.
But the reference is very important. Here's a story that another character has previously told the narrator:
"Do you know the story of the snake ball? I don't remember where I read it. Maybe someone told it to me, a long time ago. There are two snakes, and they each start cannibalizing the other one's tail. And they eat and they eat at exactly the same speed, until they're just two heads making a ball, and then they both get eaten up and disappear. I think that's the image I have of marriage—that both me and the other person, as we are now, will disappear before we can do anything about it. But I guess that can't be right. I think?"
I admire how Motoya pings this complex and graphic description so quickly and clearly. It guarantees that we'll both understand the symbolism and conjure the image of actual snakes, instead of just human bodies writhing like them.
So how much of the passage do we take literally? The metaphor is certainly present. But is the sex actually a meal? Or is the narrator merely describing her feelings in an evocative way?
Much of the evidence for a metaphor-only read is simply how well the metaphor works. The ideas of looking like someone and being eaten by someone are great ways to express that identity and agency can be lost inside a relationship.
Besides, up until this moment the story has seemed realistic. Magical elements have been incorporated through stories told by characters, but they haven’t broken from their frames. And reading past the passage in question, we do see the narrator walk away. She is not dead and digesting inside her husband's snake stomach.
The language of the passage is evidence against a metaphor-only read of it. There's no "I imagined." There's no shift in tone or style when we move from the realistic to the nonrealistic. The same style of phrasings that tell of the husband leaving his iPad behind are used to describe two snakes eating each other. The horrifying and unusual is slipped in so casually that we can't help but understand it as just as literal as what has come before.
But there is an important interruption to that steady language: "Snake Ball!" Immediately after we learn that the narrator "could no longer tell whose sensations I was feeling," these words appear, which are different from the rest of the passage. "Snake Ball!" is a fragment rather than a complete sentence, it's italicized, and it ends with an exclamation point. The words feel outside of the narrator's way of thinking, as if they come from someone else. It's an enactment of a brain takeover.
Additionally, there is evidence of real change—not just metaphoric change—in the narrator's expression of her feelings. Early in the passage, she feels a "terrible dread" and she "desperately resisted" her husband. But just a moment later things start being "pleasurable" for her and she begins "actively feeding" herself to him. She wants what she feared and this matches her claim: "He seemed to be enjoying eating me up so much that the sensation of it spread to me, and I felt as though I were tasting my own self." He is eating and digesting her to the point that she is becoming part of his body and feeling his feelings.
It's particularly horrifying. She's not just physically consumed by her jerk of a husband, but she enjoys it. This is very subjective, but I'm more terrorized by the takeover of a brain than a body. She's not kicking and screaming as her body is devoured, but she's liking it.
However, I think my sense of terror comes not only from the content but the way it's delivered. With the character, we slide from dread to pleasure, each feeling distinct and certain. But in the midst of what first seems a voluntary change of mind, we learn the narrator's mind has been seized by an outside force. So, instead of changing from one distinct feeling to another, we must hold both contradictory ones in mind at once, just as the character must.
It's like how the passage starts out as metaphorical but takes deliberate steps toward a literal interpretation. Think of that snake again. The average human body can do something like coiling, so the first mention of it seems realistic. When the husband is called a snake, it's part of that—until it isn't. We slide so carefully from a metaphorical description of a realistic act to a physical description of a magical one, that both seem true at the same time.
At any rate, no matter the intent, both options are real in my head. The scene is simultaneously ordinary sex described symbolically and a husband transformed into a snake who eats his wife as she eats him.
This is great! Holding simultaneous contradictory thoughts makes interesting things happen.
It's my theory that feelings like wonder and terror are necessarily fleeting—that we might be surprised by an "unreal" thing at first encounter, but that our brains almost immediately work to normalize the strange, so it's no longer alarming. To suspend wonder or terror for longer periods of time requires a special effort.
Imagery that we understand as simultaneously literal and symbolic, as well as feelings that are simultaneously dreadful and pleasant, can do this. Instead of averaging the opposites, the brain flashes back and forth between conflicting options. It can't spend enough time on the strange to normalize it, thus prolonging the sensation of terror.
The husband does turn out to be a literal shape shifter. So this moment ultimately serves as a sort of hinge, linking the seeming realism of the early part to the supernatural horror of the last half, as well as casting doubt on all of the narrator's previous assertions, her mind not being her own. But it's also just a lovely, terrifying moment, employing so many techniques that hold my brain in a strange suspension of terror.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com