Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room March Madness Reading Challenge.
Carmen Maria Machado’s writing style reminds me of Ben Marcus. It’s tangential to reality, unsettling in the way it seems familiar but is slightly off, and it mixes the everyday with the fairytale to create a new kind of horror.
Her Body & Other Parties is a collection of short stories that examine the female body, as a symbol of a woman’s autonomy and as a symbol of the violence that seeks to remove that autonomy. The stories range from gothic horror to futuristic dystopia, and some don’t fit gladly into any genre. Some have appeared in literary magazines, others are published here for the first time.
Her website has a list of her stories, including tales that didn’t make this volume.
1. The Husband Stitch
This is a sad story about how the surrendering of secrets can be the death of the person holding the secret. It’s about the balance between men and women in a relationship. It’s about the way men take ownership, want their needs to be met, and don’t understand why a woman might need something of her own. It’s about how the loss of that private something leaves women lonely.
A chronology of sexual encounters against the dystopian backdrop of a viral pandemic. The narrator is unnamed and possibly the last person to survive the virus. People come and go, remembered for the erotic purpose they served in her life, and for the way they smelled. Each forms part of a list. I enjoyed its structure. This one reminded me most of Ben Marcus, particularly Leaving the Sea.
An abusive relationship and a child abandoned to the care of the woman who isn’t the birth mother left me wondering if the abuse had caused insanity. Parts of it seem real but more of it seems hallucinatory. I’m not sure that it worked as a story for me. It felt more like an idea that needed a direction.
4. Especially Heinous
This one had me chuckling out loud at first. It’s a list of plot synopses for episodes of Law & Order: SVU. I’ve never watched any of this TV series. I’ve seen the UK spin-off from the US franchise, though, so I can picture what SVU might be like.
Machado presents twelve seasons over fifty-eight pages. From the first season, themes that continue across the rest of the series are introduced. Girls are being enticed into the kind of modelling work that’s actually prostitution. These same girls are being murdered. Dopplegangers take over the main characters’ cases, acting as them, getting results, tormenting them. There are hauntings and possessions, supernatural behaviour and strange coincidences.
There’s a dark surreal humour about the story that made me think of Magnus Mills. It also made me want to watch a series of SVU written by Carmen Maria Machado.
There’s a sense that the murdered girls are expendable. There’s also a theme concerning the way women’s bodies are not their own, that they can be taken and used by anyone, and the woman is supposed to accept it. Plus it’s a commentary on TV police procedurals and the way they take serious topics and try to make them simple, wrapping them up as entertainment, making it seem as though the world is just dangerous enough, without having to worry about it.
5. Real Women Have Bodies
The aura of this story is macabre and sad. A young woman works in a shop selling prom dresses. The dresses seem almost alive. Elsewhere, women are disappearing, becoming translucent and then invisible. The cause can’t be found. The disappearing women need bodies so that they can feel like they still have purpose. They will accept any kind of inanimate body, as long as it enables them to feel as though they exist. The main character discovers the secret of the disappearing women, and it threatens her sanity.
6. Eight Bites
The closest thing to a traditional short story. Although it still contains supernatural elements, its structure follows a standard narrative form. This is the story that affected me most. The central character felt very real. Her body consciousness, her relationships with her three sisters, and the one she has with her daughter, all combine to reveal someone who knows who she is but feels she should be someone different in order to fit in. The descriptions of Cape Cod out of summer season are beautiful. The description of her decision to undergo bariatric surgery and the consequences of the procedure slides into the landscape around her. As the snow recedes to reveal the summer Cape of popular imagination, so too her fat recedes to reveal a body that fits society’s idea of what a woman should look like.
7. The Resident
A tale with the menacing undertones of a psychological thriller. A woman accepts a residency at the charmingly named Devil’s Throat, a remote place up in the mountains. I enjoyed how Machado used a centuries old tradition of disguising the location by only using initial letters followed by a blank. She hides the main character’s identity in the same way. It gives a sense from the off that something bad is going to happen. There was something about it that put me in mind of Vincent Price narrating a horror story.
For our heroine, the residency is a return to the location of a Girl Scout camp she attended as a teenager, a place where an incident occurred that set her outside her peers’ social group.
The language of disease is scattered through the story. The main character encounters a gas station attendant with a constellation of pimples on his chin that resembles the Andromeda galaxy. She is pulled over by a traffic cop with a cold sore/fever sore at the corner of his mouth. She describes the former hotel where she will be staying as an infection swelling out of the ground. She falls ill for two days and leaves her room sour with the smell of infection. She suffers a strange outbreak of pustules on her torso and thighs. When another resident describes the group as colonists, she imagines herself as an invader of her own mind, bringing blankets riddled with smallpox.
There is something off-centre about the resort. Organic things jump out at Ms. M______, our protagonist, such as the carvings around the front door, the fractal patterns on another resident’s dress, the coil of dreadlocks on top of someone else’s head. The dislocation builds in a way that Wilkie Collins used in his supernatural stories.
There’s a painter at the resort whom Ms. M______ knows but doesn’t know, whose words fail to take hold in Ms. M______’s mind. Machado gets across the sense of past trauma causing Ms. M______ to subconsciously reject everything about this woman without spelling it out.
We find out what the trauma is, but not who the painter is, or how the events at the residency are related to the events of Ms. M______’s past. There’s something of Paul Auster about this story. It was my favourite piece of writing in the collection.
8. Difficult At Parties
A woman who has been attacked in her own home develops a special skill. When she watches porn, she can hear what the actors are thinking beneath the dialogue, such as it is. Her boyfriend takes her to a party to get her out of the house. She watches him talking to another woman, sees the other woman reacting to him in a way she currently doesn’t. She acquires something illicitly from the house, something she thinks will help her to know what her boyfriend is thinking.
I thought this was a great debut collection. There’s a freshness to it, along with an ancientness. Machado weaves stories in a way that echoes the style of various of my favourite male writers, but with the added timbre of female experience of the world.
5 thoughts on “Her Body & Other Parties”
I’m consciously trying to read more short stories this year. I’ve seen this cover a few times, but I think I am actually going to BUY this (yes, purchase it and have it on my bookshelf forever). Your review has me really intrigued.
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I love short stories when the writer understands the form, and I think Machado has a good grasp of how to contain a world within a shorter format. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
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I wasn’t much of a TV-watcher before Netflix, but I was really into SVU all through my teenage years. My dad asked me once how I could stand to watch it, but I couldn’t explain (partly because he and I don’t have a close relationship, partly because I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then and barely can now). I didn’t enjoy seeing depictions of traumatized and mutilated women. What I enjoyed, and needed, was Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay caring about those women. But I do see those shows from a different angle now, in the context of media as a whole. I read an article recently (here) that talked about True Detective, how excited people were at first when it seemed that the show was going to examine “the ways we take pleasure in viewing dead female bodies,” but then it turned out to be more of the same. Few things turn me off as much as the “women in refrigerators”-type tropes.