Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
Publisher: Graywolf Press
2017, paperback, 227, $16
MORE THAN ANYTHING, Carmen Maria Machado’s form is derived from fairy tales. In the eight stories that make up Her Body and Other Parties, the polished, precise sentences of contemporary literary fiction is interrupted and challenged by the almost didactic directness of a children’s tale(rhythms informed by oral tradition). A baby has “sharp little nails”; a mattress is “creaking and pinging;” the words almost carry the flavor of baby-talk tinged with menace.
“Eight Bites” possibly makes the most explicit use of this form, where the narrator’s three unnamed sisters providing the rhythm of triplicate repetition that feels indelibly tied to nursery rhymes and fairy tales. When the narrator asks her sisters about how they felt after a mysterious weight-reduction operation, they respond, one at a time, in identically-structured sentences. The passage inescapably calls to mind the rhythm of the three little pigs, or of Goldilocks, lighting up long-dormant parts of the mind, forcing the reader to comprehend narrative in a way that they haven’t been asked to since childhood, a way that we associate with being submissive to the narrative and the narrator. It almost feels belittling, threatening. Who is this authority speaking to us like we’re its own children?
At the same time, readers are treated to the complex but manicured sentences that one comes to expect from contemporary literature. In the same story, an empty winter night is described as such: “Silence and sound bumped up against each other but never intermingled; the jolly chaos of warm summer nights was as far away as it could be.” Here the narrative voice is calm, reasonable, able to assess and interpret its surroundings. The nursery-rhyme prose arises at moments of chaos, of confusion: the narration tries to interpret danger through long-held cultural myths, but, in doing so, unmoors itself and becomes even more confused, more unsettled. Machado’s prose comes most alive, though, on those occasions when she finds a space in between these two styles, calm and settled but still strange and unmoored (e.g. “my mouth fills with the dust of the moon… I am, impossibly, breathing”).
The result is an unsettling mix. The more complex sentences indicate trust in the reader while the didactic phrasing implies that the story is still describing something just beyond their comprehension. These sentences have an almost condescending tone, an acknowledgement that the very real struggles, which the stories put in terms of horror and fantasy, are not in reality so clearly signaled. Machado seeks ultimately to discomfort, and she uses her language brilliantly to subvert any unintentional comfort that her form might provide.
This tension between the stark, obvious evils of fantasy and the more insidious violence of reality also informs “The Husband Stitch,” the first published story from this collection (which is also, arguably, the work’s high point). The story is a retelling of Alvin Schwartz’s classically ghoulish children’s story “The Green Ribbon,” in which a woman allows her husband, after years of asking, to untie the mysterious ribbon around her neck, revealing it as the only thing holding her severed head onto her neck (Schwartz, much like Machado, seemed to have intentionally positioned the story as a type of folktale; on the cover of his collection, he credited the stories as “Retold by Alvin Schwartz”). In Machado’s universe, every woman carries such a ribbon, holding on a finger, an ankle, a head. Her husband’s insistence on untying it, learning its purpose, becomes a form of coercion, of sexual violence; her growing son’s inquiries into the same become a disturbing sign of the encroaching influence of male violence on him. Herein lies the bitter, ironic tension of the story: a man’s repeated insistences on his wife’s dismemberment is not a stark enough warning sign. In reality, an overbearing husband would not make himself so obvious as to literally request his wife’s dismemberment; signs of abuse, of neglect, of violence, are rarely so telegraphed. The didactic fairy-tale style, then, becomes chilling as its symbols grow to signify things increasingly more complex than themselves, the gap between simplistic children’s-tale morality and realism widening into a chasm. The story doesn’t ask the reader to feel or understand these revelations: forcefully, it makes them feel it.
“The Husband Stitch” deftly avoids possibly problematic interpretations of the ribbon as representing some kind of sexual purity; the protagonist is gleefully sexual, the language delighting in graphic descriptions such as, “I do not know if I am the first woman to walk up the aisle of St. George’s with semen leaking down her leg, but I like to imagine that I am,” that contrast with the puritan imagery of the ribbon. The story’s interactions with existing myth are complex, twisting it, expanding on it, taking it in multiple directions, examining both what the original says about society and ways in which it’s conspicuously silent. Why, in “The Green Ribbon,” is the woman herself the ultimate source of horror?
These stories progress by means of bodily decay. Almost every one begins with a complete body and tracks its dissolution, whether it’s dismembered, shrunk, beset by illness, or, in one memorable instance, subjected to a slow but inescapable disappearing. The body, these stories say, is vulnerable to so many things, can be betrayed in so many ways by forces physical or abstract, external or internal. The persistent theme of sexual pleasure helps to offset and complicate these systems of bodily destruction, but it also deepens its hurt, its horror. Machado’s sex scenes are beautifully indulgent, fully inhabiting the idea of physical pleasure. By presenting the heights of joy, love, and intimacy available to us by means of having a body, they give the characters and their bodily integrity and autonomy a higher point to fall from. A reader can take from these stories and their discussions of bodies many lessons, meanings, and interpretations, but they all ultimately return to one central truth: having a body is horrifying.
Machado is a student of Shirley Jackson, of vague threats that slowly encroach from the borders of a story so that the reader knows to be afraid long before they know what, exactly, to be afraid of. She has previously cited Lois Duncan’s Jacksonesque atmospheric horror for adolescents as a formative influence, noting the “eerie, liminal space she explored, between ordinary reality and the unexplainable,” and her work retains those qualities. Some of her strongest pieces are those that avoid the explicit supernatural, instead relying on the inherent strangeness of consciousness and memory, a filter slipped over the real world through which little actually changes but which grants every element an consistent aura of wrongness. The novella “The Resident” explores that liminal strangeness especially well, focusing on a writer’s mental breakdown over the course of an artists’ retreat. While it never explicitly breaks from reality and into the supernatural, the reader is left utterly unsure of just how to comprehended the world presented to them. The story takes off from grounded reality so gradually and so consistently that by the time we realize we’ve left the realm of normalcy it’s already far behind. As a contemporary master of the creeping unspeakable, Machado matches Jeff Vandermeer (and as a prose stylist, she surpasses him).
Her Body and Other Parties is unabashedly of its genres. It’s not a literary take on horror; it’s a horrific take on literary fiction. It does not spin fantasy tropes into literary fiction; it repurposes literary tropes as fantastical. In a climate that continues to binaristically sort books into the categories of “literary” and “genre,” Machado’s book inhabits both spaces but grants the derided latter agency over the hallowed former. Its allegiances are to fiction that rests in worlds different that our own, the work of someone who knows that many, even most, realities are most accurately communicated through unreality.
— Jacob Moore
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Guernica, Gulf Coast, NPR, and elsewhere. Her stories have been reprinted in Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. Her memoir House in Indiana is forthcoming in 2019 from Graywolf Press.
She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the University of Iowa, the Yaddo Corporation, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.