Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is often terrifying and always terrifyingly good. Machado blends elements of horror, magical realism, fairy tales, speculative fiction, queer fiction and urban myths into a subtly unnerving mix.
The book has just been nominated for The National Book Award in the United States. Machado has been compared with Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter.
Seven of the eight stories in the collection revolve around women living intensely and somewhat ambivalently in their bodies. Machado is wonderful at describing the physicality of inhabiting a body capable of providing pleasure, pain, discomfort, joy, embarassment, shame, disgust, rapture and more – often in rapid succession.
As a male I probably missed some of the nuances of Machado’s descriptions, but I got more than enough to be completely enthralled. Each of her characters felt solid and believable even within the confines of the stories’ symbolic structures and supernatural themes.
There is a lot of sex in the book, mostly queer but occasionally heterosexual, such as in the very eerie opening story, “The Husband Stitch.” The story is based on a well known creepy campfire story about a woman with a ribbon around her neck that her husband constantly wants to untie.
In the course of the story the woman also relates a host of urban legends in which women never seem to come out unscathed. “Brides never fare well in stories,” muses the narrator. “Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.”
The title comes from another urban legend about male doctors promising the husbands of women who have just given birth that they will to add a few stitches to the vagina of the new mother to make her “nice and tight.”
In other stories a mysterious plague that is killing women is rolling across America from west to east and a woman tries to keep moving and outrun it. She knows that the plague is spread by human contact but she can’t bear to not be with the woman she loves. Some pleasures, Machado seems to be telling us, are worth the risks involved.
In another story a rape victim cannot bear to have sex with her very patient boyfriend and begins to watch porn videos to loosen up. She finds that even with the volume off she can hear the porn actors thoughts, which are sometimes mundane, sometimes anxious, sometimes self-loathing, sometimes scared.
In the story “Mothers” two women create a baby together. The violent partner leaves the baby with the more passive partner who becomes obsessed with the soft spot on the baby’s skull.
It is “like a piece of fruit gone bad … like the soft spot on the peach that you can just plunge your thumb into,” she says. “I’m not going to, but I want to, and the urge is so serious that I put her down.” She then goes to the refrigerator and grabs a piece of raw salmon. “I make a mark deep in the flesh with my finger, and something inside of me is sated.”
My two favourite stories are “The Resident” and “Real Women Have Bodies.” In the first one, an unnamed writer leaves her wife to go to a writers’ colony to finish her novel and slowly goes mad and regresses to her days as a Girl Scout.
In the second one, women are beginning to slowly fade away (“going incorporeal” people call it). A woman who works in a dress shop learns that the faded women have had themselves sewn into the dresses. When her girlfriend begins to fade she has to confront the issue.
The one story that is stylistically different than the rest is “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law and Order SVU,” which is a novella-length listing of 12 seasons worth of increasingly bizarre plot summaries of the popular police drama.
An early entry reads “Sophomore Jinx: The second time the basketball team covers up a murder, the coach decides he’s finally had enough.”
Machado’s writing is full of jarring images and memorable phrases. One woman’s lover’s laughter “tripped pleasure down the stairs of my heart.” Another’s sexual climax is “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall.”
The narrator of “The Husband Stitch” says that “stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.”
Machado’s stories are each individual but they are tied together by a terror of looking too closely at aspects of our selves that we are afraid of seeing and by the fact that we – men and women – are physical beings with often irrational lusts and longings.
Machado writes about female desire and female physicality in a way that is both luminous and earthy without being coy or sentimental.
As the narrator also says after retelling one of her many gruesome urban legends, “this may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.”