Book Review: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
So many books, so little time. It’s a sentiment most any reader can connect to. Books take an investment of time, and there’s a whole bunch of them out there. We follow our gut, we follow blurbs, reviews, recommendations, and yes, sometimes even covers. But what made me decide to read Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was that it won the Shirley Jackson award for Best Single-Author Collection, no small feat in a genre that is ripe with great single-author collections; where the form itself is something of a hallmark of the genre. Seriously, if you don’t have a short story collection, do you even write weird horror?
Her Body and Other Parties earns its praise, a stunning debut with sharp writing and real-life horror represented by Machado’s weird, surreal narratives, that often feel like a confession to the reader. It’s feminist, queer, and powerful in its concise, sometimes lyrical direction. It aims for something greater than mere horror, tackling real world issues under the guise of narratives while letting the reader feel someone else’s emotions, or perhaps even confront their own. Ultimately, it’s a visceral collection with some of the cleanest prose I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, but moreso, the empathy it inspires is as powerful as its scares.
“The Husband Stitch” opens the collection—perhaps the most popular story in Her Body, and through some strange cultural osmosis both my girlfriend and I were aware of the general outline of the story despite neither of us reading any of Machado’s work. The story concerns a woman, as all the stories do, and her ribbon. The ribbon itself is symbolic, metaphorical, but also in the tradition of weird fiction: unknowable. This is one of the strengths of Machado’s fiction, in that she seamlessly melds the weird with her perspective, wielding genre like a laser-guided missile. The woman in question has a ribbon around her neck, and no matter what she gives to the world, what she experiences, it is that ribbon, her ribbon, that the men in her life have an urge to pull loose. The ribbon might be a right to privacy (or private thought), a tangible representation of the intangible, or maybe autonomy—but by the end of the story, it’s not the ribbon that is scary, only what people insist they must do to it.
Machado’s stories succeed through their defiantly personal vision. This is the work of a writer writing for herself, processing a lifetime of interactions and looking for the meaning in existent. They are also erotic and sensual, wildly sex positive, and in a story like “Inventory,” where a woman takes inventory of her lovers while facing an apocalypse—it’s treated as natural and human as gasping for air. And I think it speaks to not only Machado’s vision, but her emotional intelligence, that everything in Her Body and Other Parties is rich, and emotionally complex. This is feminist fiction, but it’s also weird, horror, queer, and literary—and as such, nothing goes off half-cocked. Women and men are not perfect, men are not all bad, women are not all good and the connections we make to each other are necessarily messy. Machado instead has an eye toward the social systems in place that mold us into what we inevitably become, and those molds are harsh and equally constricting.
“Especially Heinous,” right after “The Husband Stitch” will probably be the most talked about story in the collection, and for good reason too—it’s ambitious as all hell, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Machado reimagines Law and Order: SVU—the entirety of its run, mind you—on an episode by episode basis in perhaps her most traditionally horrific entry in the collection. That is 272 episode blurbs, a novella unlike any I’ve seen before. In it, she reimagines New York as a living breathing thing, where dead underage models come back with bells in their eyes and doppelgangers keep crossing paths. “Especially Heinous” is weird and creative and an absolute center piece of the collection.
“Real Women Have Bodies” is another more overt genre piece, but again, the genre is twisted around to provide some insightful commentary. In it, women are going invisible and we follow a narrator and her girlfriend as they deal with the fact of her approaching invisibility, while navigating a world where they don’t know what’ll happen when they lose their bodies, and also dealing with those who admonish them for losing it. It’s clearly a story about the stock we put in women’s youth and attractiveness, and what happens when it’s gone. I think Machado is at her absolute best when she deals with these sort of straightforward, almost defensive messages. In “The Resident,” she has an art colony in the mountains and one anxious, insular woman as her protagonist. In it, she comes to know herself, and own herself through a series of strange run-ins with other artists. It has one of the best dressing-down monologues I’ve ever read and it feels so distinctly personal that it might as well be poetry.
I do believe that art, before anything else, is communication. It’s our subtlest form of talking, and also our most persuasive. What can be encompassed in a story, poem, song, or painting is more nuanced than boldface bullet-points will ever be. In Her Body and Other Parties, Machado writes about her life, good and bad, the constructs that chain her, the connections that bring her hope. I wasn’t sure if I, a straight white male, would find something to connect to in a collection so clearly not about me, but Machado’s writing is like a raw nerve and it’s impossible not to feel the stories she tells. They are surreal and horrific; erotic and human—but in each there is a sense of voice, as if Machado has stretched the boundaries of horror to encompass her confessional approach. But what’s scary about Her Body and Other Parties is that there are never women running from a masked man, no one being eaten by a monster. There’s no screams on foggy moors. What’s so sad, and what’s so scary about the world of Machado’s stories is that the supernatural element is a neutral one, and whatever threats that live in her world, also threaten our own.