Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. ★★★★
I already considered Carmen Maria Machado to be one of my favorite short fiction authors, and this collection just confirms that opinion.
The stories in Her Body and Other Parties are queer, sexual, innovative, and feminist, usually with some sort of speculative fiction element, although not one that can always be easily categorized with normal genre labels. If there’s a single theme that unites the collection, its the focus on women, their relationship with their bodies, and existing in a patriarchal society. As you might suspect, these are not lighthearted stories. Another unifying element to the collection is that all the tales have a dark, ominous undercurrent.
The highlight of the collection is the opening story, “The Husband Stitch,” a story I’d already read several months back. By the way, you can read it for free in Granta Magazine. The unnamed protagonist won’t allow her husband to touch the green ribbon around her neck, but he keeps reaching for it, despite how she gives everything else she has to him. Nothing is left for her alone. Like many of the stories in the collection, “The Husband Stitch” is very sexual, with multiple explicit sex scenes.
This can be seen perhaps most clearly in “Inventory,” where a woman counts off all the sexual partners she’s ever had. In between the lines of her list, a story of a devastating apocalypse emerges. It was the only other story in the collection I’d read before. While it’s not my favorite of Carmen Maria Machado’s work, I do enjoy the unusual structure and her brilliant prose. “Inventory” is one of the few stories that can be put within a strict genre label, and it’s the only story in the collection that’s firmly science fiction.
“The Resident” is a story about a writer who goes to an artists’ retreat high up in some isolated mountains and finds entirely too much of herself. At first I thought it was realistic fiction, but wait long enough and fantastical elements emerge, bringing the story into the realm of magical realism. It’s one of my least favorite in the collection, and I find much about it forgettable. Maybe I’m just not interested in “lonely writer” stories. Then again, I was fascinated by the idea of stories colonizing us, stories as invaders into our consciousnesses…
It makes a frame of reference for me to view the novella “Especially Heinous” with. “Especially Heinous” purports to be plot synopsis of some 270-odd episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, a show I’ve never seen but now mostly involves the brutal, sexualized murders of women. It’s by far the strangest story in the collection, with each synopsis bizarre and sometimes seemingly unconnected to the rest. At first it was doing nothing at all for me, and I did find myself grappling with it the whole way through. Yet, as I kept reading, it started to get into my head and shift the patterns of my thoughts. I don’t know how exactly to describe the experience, but there was something memorizing about it. It’s weird and experimental. I can’t say I loved it, but it did affect me.
Another memorable story is “Real Women Have Bodies,” where women have begun to become insubstantial and ghost-like. No one knows why, and the story’s not interested in concrete answers. While there’s obvious societal commentary, the story’s ambiguous enough to leave you without solid answers.
Perhaps the most ambiguous story in the collection is “Mothers,” which begins with a woman’s former girlfriend handing her a baby and telling her its their’s. It’s unclear how much of the story is real and how much is happening in the narrator’s head. The relationship with her ex-girlfriend was clearly abusive, and she may have some lingering trauma. But can all the oddities of the situation be dismissed as hallucinations, or is there something supernatural at work? Again, “Mothers” is a story that leaves more questions than answers.
“Eight Bites” is one of the stories most directly related to the theme of women’s bodies and societal pressure, as it deals with disordered eating. The protagonist undergoes a surgery to remove weight (and afterwards will only eat eight bites at a time) but becomes haunted by the parts of herself that she’s cut away, both literally and metaphorically.
The final story, “Difficult at Parties,” is about a woman recovering from a sexual assault. The assault isn’t shown but it can be inferred through the rest of the story. In an effort to rekindle her relationship with her boyfriend (husband?), the protagonist begins to watch pornography and starts hearing the thoughts of all the actors. It’s another story where you can question how much is reality and how much is within the protagonist’s head. And does it really matter?
Her Body and Other Parties is a dark, complex collection from a wonderfully skilled author. If you aren’t familiar with any of Carmen Maria Machado’s stories, I suggest you read some!