Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut Her Body and Other Parties are both highly varied – in length, form, and style – and also absolutely related. They each handle gender in our real world, including issues of body image, sexuality, violence, lust, and family structures, but frequently do so by calling in supernatural forces, post-apocalypses, fairy tales or other fictional reference points. These are narratives to get completely lost and absorbed in, not necessarily pleasant reading, but compelling.

“The Husband Stitch” starts the collection off, and is why I own it: my friend Vince teaches it and I’ve heard him talk about it several times. It is a quite discomfiting story of a woman’s life from girlhood on, including her marriage and motherhood to a boy. It’s about gender expectations, and it feels true to our world, which is why it’s so uncomfortable. It also makes reference to the classic urban myth/horror story about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck – remember that one?

“Inventory” lists the narrator’s partners, of different genders, over the years, until the reader understands that in her world there has been a global pandemic that has all but wiped out the human population. (This was published in 2017, but yes, it feels creepily familiar, like The Stand.) I think it counts as what Suzanne Paola calls a life-rolled-up. I like it very much, in this case, the spooky outer world that it shows at an off-angle while ostensibly focusing on sexual/romantic relationships.

“Mothers” sees a woman showing up on her former lover’s doorstep with a baby, which she deposits, saying “She’s yours.” The trick is that the partner is also a woman, who has imagined their life together as mothers many times, but simultaneously comforted herself that it wasn’t possible for them to make a baby. This central riddle is never solved; by the end, it doesn’t feel like it matters. It’s an interesting thought experiment. The passage about “the major and minor arcana of our little religion” pleased me greatly.

“Especially Heinous,” the longest story in this collection, I felt was the weakest of the collection. I like both the form and the frame: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” it offers very short synopses of 272 episodes of that show, seasons 1-12. I have watched this show some; as a person mostly ignorant of pop culture references like this, it was gratifying to know the subtext. But it didn’t really work out for me. This alternate version of Benson and Stabler have themselves an alternate version, Henson and Abler, sort of evil doppelgängers who muck up their cases and relationships. It’s otherworldly, paranormal, and weird (none of which I shy away from!) but somehow didn’t come together. Maybe the large number of short pieces didn’t hold together for this many pages. I definitely got bogged down here and reading became a bit of a task.

But then things came right back together again. “Real Women Have Bodies” sees a world with another, different epidemic, in which women sort of… fade out, and become invisible. But where do they go? Our female protagonist works in a high-end dress shop, and finds herself in a relationship with another woman, and both wind up in a position to witness the ways in which women change and are disregarded. (No metaphor here, I’m sure.) It’s lovely and haunting, which could be said about the whole collection.

“Eight Bites” is another perfectly apt observation of the world, in which a woman gets gastric bypass surgery – the last of her sisters to do so – and thereby horrifies and enrages her daughter, who rejects the societal bullying that gets us here in the first place.

“The Resident” features a writer heading to an artists’ residency where she struggles to relate to others, eventually finding herself humiliated – again. This story has a neat trick at its conclusion.

And finally, “Difficult at Parties” (a phrase that echoes from an earlier story) depicts the aftermath of a trauma. Not for the first time, this story is so realistic and painful that it is hard to read, but also spellbinding and crystalline.

NPR‘s Annalisa Quinn states that this book is “full of outlandish myths that somehow catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing wouldn’t.” I’m glad I read that line; it helps me to think about this kind of writing – fabulist realism, perhaps – as defamiliarization. Making our very own familiar world strange helps us to see it more clearly.

I’ll be thinking about these stories for some time. Machado has a gift. Keep your eyes open for her later memoir, In the Dream House. Also, thanks Vince for the recommendation.


Rating: 8 dresses.

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