Book: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction Short Story Collection
Preferred Reading Environment: With a friend, by a campfire
Reading Accoutrements: a comforting beverage and/or snack
Content Notes: Sexual Assault, Bigotry, Internalized Fat-phobia, Misogyny
I’ve had Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado sitting on my shelf for a couple months now, the result of an online “now’s a good time to buy all the books in my shopping cart” binge. This collection contains short stories (and one novella) with a creepy/horror vibe, starring strong women who aren’t limited to stereotypical “female” interests or behaviors.
One thing you’ll notice throughout this review is that I don’t use a ton of character names. Most of these stories are told by a first person narrator, and we don’t always get their name.
As I started “The Husband Stitch,” I was struck by an overwhelming sense of familiarity. I knew where the story was going, and was almost certain I’d read it before. It turns out, the overarching fable, about a woman with a green ribbon around her neck, was adapted into an illustrated tale in a children’s collection of creepy stories. I currently have that on hold at my library so I can figure out if I read that as a child. It’s also possible, though less likely, that I have actually read “The Husband Stitch” before, since it has been out for a few years, and a lot of Machado’s stories are available to read online.
Our narrator is a woman telling us about her life, mainly through the frame of how she met her husband and how their relationship and lives developed over time. The narrator gives the reader reading notes, including directions on how to portray the characters out loud, sound effects, and other setting suggestions. Throughout, she shares several contemporary folk tales, some with multiple versions, that mostly have to do with how women are treated or perceived in society. I loved this piece; it was a little spooky, and really compelling.
I read in an interview with Machado that some people classify “The Husband Stitch” as erotica, and that perplexes me. Not every story with sex in it is erotica, people. And this story in particular was so spooky and uncomfortable that I can’t imagine describing it as erotic.
“Inventory” might have been my favorite piece in this collection, but there are a couple of really close runner ups (and there are only eight stories. All of them are great. Favorites are hard). Our narrator in this piece recounts all of the sexual/sensual encounters in her life. The accounts do read like an inventory, depicting the people involved and events that occured in short, to-the-point descriptions.
Throughout the telling, it is revealed that the world has experienced some sort of pandemic that has killed a significant portion of humanity. The author relocates when necessary to avoid new outbreaks, and has several encounters with people infected or trying to avoid infection. This story is really short at 13 pages, but extremely powerful. I thought the world was built beautifully – we could get a clear picture even though we were just seeing it through one person’s life. In preparing for this review, I discovered that “Inventory” is available to read at Lithub. I definitely recommend checking it out to get a taste for Machado’s writing.
“Especially Heinous” is a collection of reimagined descriptions of Law and Order SVU episodes. This goes through the first 12 seasons of SVU, using the titles of episodes to tell a creepy tale of alternate universe versions of Benson and Stabler. Machado first thought of the idea for this piece while marathon watching SVU as she was in the grips of a swine flu fever.
When I first started this piece, I was pretty confused. I didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. I looked up to see if the titles were real, and they were, but I wasn’t sure how much the descriptions drew from the actual episodes. It’s also really long, being the 70 page novella of the collection. About 2 seasons in, I took a break and read a couple reviews of the piece to see if it was worth reading all the way through. I decided it was, and then promptly regretted reading the review, because it slightly spoiled some of the surprise-aspects of the work. I definitely recommend reading this one, especially if you like the idea of ghosts with bells for eyes and doppelgangers of Benson and Stabler. Just know it takes a little bit to get into, and you don’t have to have encyclopedic knowledge of SVU to appreciate it.
Both my favorites in this collection involved unidentified pandemics. The pandemic in “Real Women Have Bodies” is described in much more detail than the one in “Inventory,” though we still see it through the eyes of one character. She works in a dress shop in a mall and falls in love with the daughter of one of the dress suppliers. Meanwhile, women all over the country are fading away, literally. They become more and more translucent until they all but vanish. This story was super intriguing, and really made me hurt for the characters.
“Eight Bites” made me queasy a couple times. It’s an eerie look at gastric bypass surgery, exploring the character and her family’s relationship with food and body image. I thought it was interesting that the narrator is estranged from her queer daughter, as I’m pretty sure that contributed to the fact that this was the only narrator I didn’t really like as a character. This was a story I feel like I need to read a couple of times before I can determine what points Machado might be making.
A few of these stories struck me as good candidates for short horror films, but “The Resident” drew the most from horror movie tropes specifically, as opposed to horror literary techniques. An author is accepted for a residency in the mountains near where she attended girl scout camp as a child. The residents stay in an old hotel and each have a cabin where they can focus on their work. There are all types of artists at the residency, and of course, they butt heads a bit. It was fun deciphering what was real in this story, and what certain events might allude to or mean. I loved the setting and the situation, and I had a ton of questions about the characters. I’d love to see this work expanded into a novel or adapted to the screen.
It’s no surprise I like Machado’s writing. Her prose is artful and dark, while still being succinct. In essays I read after finishing the collection, I learned that she’s written articles on retail consumerism and higher education, as well as pop culture reviews. There is a lot of subversion – turning old tropes on their heads, showing us familiar genre scenarios from a different perspective, and giving voice to the characters who are usually pushed to the background. I loved this collection and I will not only be returning to it in the future but seeking out more of Machado’s work, as well.
Are there any fables or urban folktales from your childhood that have stuck with you ever since? Share in the comments!