Speculative Feminism: On Carmen Maria Machado’s ‘Her Body and Other Parties’
Machado’s collection is a genre-bending blend of sci-fi, literary fiction, folklore, ghost stories, and contemporary media.
Carmen Maria Machado
Stories | 248 Pages | 5.6” x 8.2” | Reviewed: Paperback
978–1555977887 | First Edition | $16.00
Graywolf Press | Minneapolis | BUY HERE
I am often late. Not to work or appointments, but late to TV shows, movies, and books. I didn’t get into Arrested Development until after it ended, and I have yet to see The Matrix, which has been out for nearly 20 years. (I’ll get to it, I promise.) I am decidedly behind the times with every new hit. Likewise, it took me several months to pick up Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short-story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, a genre-bending work that blends elements of science fiction, literary fiction, folklore, ghost stories, and contemporary media into a delicious speculative-fiction casserole. Machado’s work has been hailed by numerous publications and organizations as a Best Book of 2017, among other awards; indeed, this book was featured in a reviewer’s Best Books of 2017 list on The Coil. Her Body and Other Parties has been praised for its author’s innovation and meticulous detail to technique, every sentence perfectly and lovingly crafted. My biggest issue with this extraordinary, dynamic collection is that I did not read it sooner.
“Anything could move out there in the darkness, I think. A hook-handed man. A ghostly hitchhiker forever repeating the same journey. An old woman summoned from the repose of her mirror by the chants of children. Everyone knows these stories — that is, everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them — but no one ever believes them.”
(from “The Husband Stitch”)
Machado is a loving writer, and she writes as if she’s enraptured by form, by the constraints and freedoms of narrative; her characters often refer to literature or partake in the act of writing. It seems fitting to begin this review by discussing “The Husband Stitch,” the first piece in the collection, a story that is itself about stories, namely legends and folklore, stories that we feel okay not believing. This piece examines the way these tales become part of our cultural architecture and the seemingly innocuous ways we use them to interpret or, often, to deny the truths in the world. The narrator meets a boy when she is a teenager, and they follow a storybook path of marriage and child-rearing. Although the couple is mostly happy, the husband cannot let go of one little detail: his wife was born with a green ribbon around her neck. The husband desperately tries to touch the ribbon, sometimes sneakily, other times by attempting to guilt his wife out of keeping her one last secret from him, the one part about herself she does not want to share.
This story is, like many others in the collection, about boundaries, physical and emotional. The husband often oversteps his boundaries, and we often overstep our boundaries as readers. Throughout the piece, the narrator, while letting us in on intimate details of her life, keeps us at arm’s length, distracting us with stories, legends, and “old wives’ tales.” Even when we feel close to her, we are reminded that we do not know the secret of her ribbon, either. The title of the piece refers to a medical procedure in which, after childbirth, the woman is given an extra stitch so that her vagina is more pleasurable to her male partner. The procedure itself, which the internet both says does and doesn’t exist, combined with the narrator’s emphasis on fictional tales, prompts the reader to question the validity of her words, thereby indoctrinating us into the very mentality that Machado is critiquing. The reader becomes complicit in the cultural sentiment of disbelief, which comfortably allows us to disregard the words of women, especially when addressing violence against their (our) own bodies.
“I don’t remember getting fat. I wasn’t a fat child or teenager; photos of those young selves are not embarrassing, or if they are, they’re embarrassing in the right ways. Look how young I am! Look at my weird fashion! […] Look at those glasses, look at that face: mugging for the camera. Look at that expression, mugging for a future self who is holding those photos, sick with nostalgia. Even when I thought I was fat, I wasn’t; the teenager in those photos is very beautiful, in a wistful kind of way.”
(from “Eight Bites”)
What I admire most about Machado’s writing is that it is undeniably political. The stories within the collection are all widely different in terms of content and form, but they are linked together by their emphasis on exploring the experiences of women, particularly queer women, and their bodies. Each story features bodily violence of some kind: In “Inventory,” a woman reflects on her sexual experiences, the good and the bad, from her first until the last, all while a virus threatens to wipe out humanity. In “Mothers,” a same-sex couple defies nature and has a baby, sending the narrator into a tailspin of fantasies and memories we’re not sure are real. In “Difficult at Parties,” a woman experiences a sexual trauma and, while trying to rebuild her sex life with her partner, can suddenly hear the internal thoughts of actors in porn videos. Machado takes otherworldly scenarios and brings them into our world to critique the intricacies of the feminine experience.
“One man. A boyfriend. Didn’t like condoms, asked me if I was on birth control, pulled out anyway. A terrible mess.”
While many of the pieces have a darkness that hearkens back to Gothic horror or classic science fiction, there’s also delight embedded within the sorrow. Much of the collection centers around bodies that have been harmed by other people, collectively or individually, but sometimes the perpetrator is the woman herself, such as in “Eight Bites.” In this piece, the narrator elects to have an irreversible surgery for weight loss that has detrimental spiritual effects. Along with critiquing the damage others do to women and their bodies, Machado does not shy away from pointing out the harm we do to ourselves via this internalized misogyny. Amidst these heavy condemnations of the way society treats women, there is lightness, as well, including humor and genuine (if fleeting) closeness between characters. Because this collection focuses on the body, several stories incorporate a beautiful eroticism with scenes of consensual sex. There is joy as well as terror when it comes to having a woman’s body, and Machado delves into both sides of the coin. Machado writes about sex in a way that does not gross me out (which is the highest praise I can give). The body’s responses to sex, even the more visceral and sticky components, are treated as a celebration of sexuality, and the body becomes an expression of spirit.
“The woods are quiet but for the hum of insects and twittering of birds. We peel off our clothes and soak in the sun. I examine my fingertips against the light, pink-amber halos around the shadows of my bones”
(from “Real Women Have Bodies”)
When I write reviews of collections, I like to spend a paragraph or two talking about my favorite piece. It is difficult to follow this pattern with Her Body and Other Parties, because I have two favorite stories, and it is impossible to pick between them. One of these favorites is the longest piece in the collection, of novella length. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” comprises vignettes in which Machado borrows characters and episodes from SVU and constructs a supernatural saga of doppelgängers, alien abductions, and ghosts of murdered teen girls with bells for eyes. I am not usually a fan of novellas within collections, and I don’t really care much for SVU as a show, but Machado’s prowess with crafting a narrative and her sheer passion for language held my attention. This story, because it takes place in an already established work of fiction, cannot resist a bit of meta-narrative, and Machado does this by distributing tidbits for anyone even remotely familiar with the series. For instance, throughout the narrative, Stabler hears a constant drumming, but he cannot locate the source, a drumming that possibly alludes to the infamous dum-dum of the title shot. Stabler and Benson are contained within the walls of both SVU and the alternate world of Machado’s creation, and she draws attention to that fact repeatedly in subtle, smart ways. Although all pieces within the collection have high reread value, this story is particularly rich, like a very tasty cake of which you cannot resist a second piece.
“‘REDEMPTION’: Benson accidentally catches a rapist when she Google-stalks her newest OkCupid date. She can’t decide whether or not to mark this in the ‘success’ (‘caught rapist’) or ‘failure’ (‘date didn’t work out’) column. She marks it in both.”
(from “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”)
This collection revisits multiple feminist themes, connecting the stories despite their widely different content; one of these themes is a woman’s voice, and how our society is so keen to find reasons not to listen to it. Hysteria, a word with gendered roots, is a classic excuse. In the spirit of Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Machado’s “The Resident” explores “insanity” in a contemporary context. A writer travels into the mountains for an exclusive residency where she intends to work on her novel. Instead, the residency and the people there are anything but relaxing, and she encounters dismembered animals, mysterious illnesses, and a nameless woman who speaks words that the narrator immediately forgets. The story’s tone is haunting, and I felt delightfully uncomfortable reading it late at night. The narrator juxtaposes her present moment at the residency with a traumatic experience during Girl Scout camp years ago in that same location, an experience that occurred as a result of displaying her queerness, adding another layer of betrayal at the hands of others. As the lines between the past and present are blurred, the narrator descends into “madness,” and distrusts all the other residents. This madness/gaslighting theme as it appears in literature is addressed in a meta way when Lydia, another resident, critiques the narrator’s novel-in-progress, opining that doing (being) the madwoman in the attic trope is overdone. As readers, we are forced to confront our expectations and our respective belief systems. What do we choose? The testimony of the narrator, or the easy and much more comfortable diagnosis of madness? Is the narrator expressing the objective truth, or is she just another madwoman in the attic?
“I felt something strange move through my body. Once, when I was visiting my grandfather as a girl, I’d startled a garter snake out of the grass, and it had dived for the safety of the neatly assembled woodpile so fast that its muscular body snapped rigid before being slurped into the darkness. I felt this way now, as if I was plummeting somewhere so quickly my body was out of control. I crawled back into bed, and had a dream.”
(from “The Resident”)
When we read or view something, we often tell ourselves we want concrete answers to the mysteries. But more often than not, that means the end, the end of the piece or the end of the suspense or sometimes the end of the enjoyment. The ratings for Twin Peaks sharply declined after Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, and the much anticipated ending of Lost left a bad taste in a lot of viewers’ mouths. It seems that we do not really want to be sure of what is going on, which is part of the appeal of Her Body and Other Parties. Many of the stories are ambiguous by design, reflecting the liminal spaces and identities within which many women exist, and the reader is left trying to piece together clues to form a conclusion. Even the title has ambiguous meanings, as it is not named for a story in the collection. While sometimes this open-ended form of storytelling can come off as hackneyed in the hands of an amateur, Machado is anything but. Machado establishes herself as a master of her craft with her intense attention to detail, a quality that makes each and every story resonate. This is a writer who does not cheat the reader, but instead provides us with what is required to get the utmost feel and appreciation out of these beautiful stories even when the ending is not as cut-and-dried as we pretend we want it to be. Machado is a generous writer, and Her Body and Other Parties is a collection that continues to give and give.