Tracing Fussell’s transformation from a scrawny graduate of Oxford University to a West Coast bodybuilder, Muscle marks a fascinating insight into the bodybuilding culture of 1980s America. Aware that his desire for change is fuelled by his own insecurities and at times self hatred, Fussell tracks his change from meekly using the machines in the corners of the gym to heavy grunting his way through a set of heavy squats. While this depiction may present the book as vapid, the author is truly insightful on several accounts.
In the first instance Fussell is at pains to track his mental and emotional changes as his muscle grows. This is complimented by an at times very amusing examination of his gym relationships and buddies. Surrounded by likeminded trainees, Fussell details a subculture in its own right, a cult of iron for want of a better word. What draws me to this book again and again is the author’s refusal to valorise or praise the unhealthy elements of bodybuilding. Meek from his pre-contest diet, Fussell demonstrates the lengths to which amateur bodybuilders are willing to go in search of an idealised physique. That the author eventually decides to leave bodybuilding behind is testament to the very lengths he went to in the first place.
In both lay and academic readings, Muscle forces the reader to think about their own relationship with their bodies and the lengths they go to in order to fit preconceived ideas.