Genre in the Mainstream

Her Body, Her Self: Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties

Carmen Maria Machado is the best writer of cognitive dysphoria I’ve read in years. While reading Her Body and Other Parties, I found myself thinking, again and again, of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. As Jackson’s readers are trapped in Eleanor’s crumbling personality, gradually realizing just how lost she is as the book unfurls, so Machado centers her readers in collapsing bodies and untrustworthy minds. Her collection reads like someone trying to list every possibly nuance of physical failure: plagues, environmental collapse, madness, terminal illness. She gives us woman after woman who could star in their own books. She gives us crimes of passion, and moments when passion elevates people to their highest potential. This is Machado’s first short fiction collection—she has already been a finalist for an overflowing cornucopia of awards, including the 2017 National Book Awards, the Tiptree Award, the John W. Campbell Award, and, appropriately enough, the Shirley Jackson Award. All thoughts of accolades fall away while reading her visceral writing, however—I am not a squeamish person, but there were a few points when I had to put the book down and walk away from it to escape the emotional intimacy Machado creates.

Obviously, I loved this book. And if you love intricate, weird writing, skewed fairytales, Law & Order, queerness, complex female characters, and emotionally vital writing that might cause nightmares, you will find something to love, too.

This review will contain light spoilers.

Machado’s protagonists succumb to lust, violence, blackouts, love, but always their wills race ahead on rocky paths dragging their minds behind them. In “Mothers,” a woman is overcome first by love, then by the drugs her lover shares, then with helplessness as her lover’s obsessiveness and abuse worsens. Finally the woman blinks in and out of the present, and the reader is only able to piece fragments of “reality” together around the woman’s narrative. But then, who says “reality” is any more real that what’s happening in her mind? Her mind certainly seems to be the most vital thing in the story. In “The Husband Stitch” we follow the main character, so good and proper on the outside, through several different overwhelming passions, seeing how desire undoes her and pushes her in directions she hates. In “Difficult at Parties” a woman who has undergone terrible trauma tries to put herself back together, realizing that she can hear the thoughts of actors in certain films. Or at least, she thinks she can hear their thoughts. In “Especially Heinous”, two detectives based on the main characters of Law & Order: SVU find themselves in a somewhat more supernatural version of their show. Each think they see doppelgangers of themselves, hear breathing and heartbeats beneath the city, the voices of dead girls in their minds. At each point, the women in particular are forced to doubt their own minds, and test their trust in themselves.

This works so well because Machado’s writing is embodied and sensuous. When you read one of her stories you are walking around in her characters’ bodies, solid and fleshy, so when they doubt their minds you can feel their stability slipping out from under you.

In “Inventory” a mysterious plague is wiping people out, and the first symptom that shows infection is the sufferers eyes. Plenty of near-future dystopias deal with sexual plagues, but in this one it’s the windows to the soul that get infected first. But Machado doesn’t go the Blindness or 28 Days Later route and immediately turn everyone into monsters—these are just people, scared but not evil. Some of them try to help each other, but mostly they just want to survive. In “Real Women Have Bodies” women are disappearing, literally physically fading away for no discernible reason, but most people go through the motions of their ordinary lives with news of these fadings as background noise. There is no mass panic, no stampedes or megachurch services—people ignore the epidemic until it hits someone they know.

Most of the stories also turn on questions of consent. In “The Husband Stitch”, the wife gives her husband her virginity, constant adventurous sex, fidelity, a loving home, and a son. But even so, her male obstetrician threatens her with a c-section she doesn’t want and jokes with her husband (in her hearing) about performing the titular stitch after the birth. Worst of all, she spends her entire life battling with her husband’s desire to unknot the ribbon around her neck. He returns to it again and again, relentlessly, never hearing her requests for privacy:

“A wife should have no secrets.”

“I’ve given you everything you ever asked for,” I say. “Am I not allowed this one thing?”

I want to know.”

“You think you want to know,” I say, “but you don’t.”

“Why do you want to hide it from me?”

“I’m not hiding it. It just isn’t yours.”

Across the span of the book, people are filmed without their consent, asked to give up names and secrets, hit, thrown across rooms. Always Machado comes back to the idea that violation is constant, and that each one, from the tiny unthinking questions all the way up to rape, are horrific acts. “Difficult at Parties” begins in the aftermath of a home invasion/rape, and circles around the protagonists need to re-set her own emotional boundaries—boundaries which are repeatedly, unthinkingly violated by her boyfriend in his attempts to help her. Machado’s fine-grained telling of the aftermath of rape is incredibly powerful. She doesn’t give us courtroom scenes or medical exams, simply the tiny moments that add up to the day after, the week after, the month after, when your body has healed but fear and fury sit just under your skin. When people who do know expect you to get over it, and people who don’t know are confused when you flinch at their touch. It’s a harrowing story, but takes the protagonist in enough odd directions that it never bogs down or becomes maudlin.

The theme is most present in the novella that provides the book’s centerpiece, “Especially Heinous”, a skewed retelling of Law & Order: SVU. The story hinges on an army of young girls who have been raped and murdered, all of them demanding justice from beyond the grave. Decades-old rape cases resurface. People lie and use each other to get what they want. But the story turns on one of the characters willingly inviting the ghosts into her mind—giving her body over to them so she can win them justice and closure. This story is told in pocket episode recaps, like the ones you’d see on Netflix or Hulu if you were scrolling through a season. They are all fantastic, and build perfectly into a long arc, but in the interest of not spoiling too much of the fun I’ll only share one of my favorites now:

“Stocks and Bondage”: Benson takes the bag of rotten vegetables out of the trunk when Stabler isn’t looking. She throws it into a garbage can and it hits the empty bottom, wet and heavy. It splits open like a body that’s been in the Hudson.

I should mention that I have never, in my life, watched an episode of L&O: SVU, and my only knowledge of the show comes from this John Mulaney stand-up routine, but I loved this story, its themes, its humor, and the characters, who spin off from their TV counterparts to become fully human.

The ultimate lack of consent of course is illness, the thing that reminds us all that were mortal bodies, even if we’re lucky enough to go our whole lives without suffering violence of any kind. We’re all, apart from Paul Rudd and Holly Robinson Peete, going to age and die. Machado returns to illness in “Inventory” and “Real Women Have Bodies.” The first is literally an inventory of a woman’s lifetime of sexual encounters, with a plague in the background, because as she faces the death and despair around her, like many people she clings to whatever joy and connection her flesh can provide. “Real Women Have Bodies” gives us a supernatural Andromeda Strain scenario of a disease that only attacks women, and again it’s set against a passionate affair between a shop clerk and a dressmaker’s daughter, who try to shelter each other with their love.

Did I mention that this book is gleefully, relentlessly queer? Because there’s that, too. In my reading life as in my real life, I try to be open to everyone’s stories, but it is a relief to relax into a book knowing that the queer women are going to be real characters, not clichés or pastiches of male gaze. The relationship between women in the book run the gamut from brief kisses to lifelong partnerships; they are loving, nurturing, abusive, complicated, open, monogamous—they’re just relationships, and it’s great. One of the high points of the book for me comes partway into “Mothers” when the two main characters replace both the religious canon and the reading canon with a queer and/or female pantheon that screams out to be syllabized:

Beyond the table, there is an altar, with candles lit for Billie Holliday and Willa Cather and Hypatia and Patsy Cline. Next to it, an old podium the once held a Bible, on which we have repurposed an old chemistry handbook as the Book of Lilith. In its pages is our own liturgical calendar: Saint Clementine and All Wayfairers; Saints Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt, observed in the summer with blueberries to symbolize the sapphire ring; the Vigil of Saint Juliette, complete with mints and dark chocolate; Feast of the Poets, during which Mary Oliver is recited over beds of lettuce, Kay Ryan over a dish of vinegar and oil, Audre Lorde over cucumbers, Elizabeth Bishop over some carrots; the Exaltation of Patricia Highsmith, celebrated with escargots boiling in butter and garlic and cliffhangers recited by an autumn fire; the Ascension of Frida Kahlo with self portraits and costumes; the Presentation of Shirley Jackson, a winter holiday started at dawn and ended at dusk with a gambling game played with lost milk teeth and stones. Some of them with their own books; the major arcana of our little religion.

You can see here several of Machado’s strengths. First, she gives a great list, always purposeful and meaningful without seeming strained. She wears her influences lovingly on her sleeve, and honors the women that came before her. Finally she allows everything to be sensuous. This could have just been a list of women the characters like—instead it becomes an incantation with the reader’s mind sliding through the tastes of blueberries, mint, dark chocolate, carrots, butter and garlic, vinegar and oil. We feel roaring fires and wintry cliffs and hard stones and teeth. Halloween is replaced with Frida Kahlo’s day, Christmas with Shirley Jackson’s dark wit. Which year would you rather celebrate?

I’m not the first to make the comparison, but I also found myself thinking of Lidia Yuknavitch—honestly if I could bear to destroy books, I’d pull the pages from Her Body and Other Parties and from Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and wear their pages as armor. I think I’d be invincible.

Her Body and Other Parties is available now from Graywolf Press.

Leah Schnelbach is adding Carmen Maria Machado to her personal liturgical calendar as we speak. Come speak to her of blueberries and saints on Twitter!

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