Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut Her Body and Other Parties is a stunningly good collection of unsettling tales, each of which grow beyond their bodily horrors into metaphorical meditations on sex and identity. Using the words of one of her characters, these stories feel like a “strange spiral behind [the] navel, the downward swirl that might precede fear or arousal.” Equal parts creepy and erotic, Her Body and Other Parties is a book for dissecting, packed full of emotional and carnal astonishment.
The collection opens with “The Husband Stitch,” a searingly uncomfortable story about a young woman who surrenders everything for her husband, obsessed with the idea of being a selfless, dutiful wife. (Feel free to Google what the title refers to, as I’ll spare you the details here.) Explicit sex is twisted away from anything erotic, poisoned by the narrator’s sense of obligation. It’s often ghastly to read, but “The Husband Stitch” is much more than it’s dirtiness. The narrator thinks often about urban legends and ghost stories, tales about “a girl dared by her peers to venture to a local graveyard after dark,” or a “pioneer husband and wife killed by wolves.” The stories all have a lesson, but they’re all also cliche, almost comforting in their predictability. The narrator wears a ribbon around her neck (a nod to another campfire story), and despite giving her entire body to her husband she is insistent that he never touch it. As the story goes on, Machado reveals that other women, perhaps all women, wear a similar ribbon, and are similarly protective of it. “The Husband Stitch” effortlessly transforms into a stunning metaphor about feminism and questions whether we are doomed to live out our lives in a way that meets outside expectations.
In “Inventory,” Machado proves that her stories are not simply about sex but use that carnality to achieve something greater. Structured as journal recounting the narrator’s sexual partners, a second plot emerges in “Inventory” about a “virus blossoming” in California, buried in the background details of the narrator’s exploits. In “Mothers,” a woman is given a baby by her ex-girlfriend, despite the biological impossibility of making a child in their same-sex relationship. The narrator and her newborn stumble through the darkness of motherhood, learning together the innate potential of the body and heart. “I believe in a world where impossible things happen,” the narrator reflects. “Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.”
“Especially Heinous” is a brilliantly inventive Lovecraftian horror story disguised, quite literally, as an eleven-season-long episode guide to Law & Order. 272 imaginary episode titles are paired with short snapshots, like the Season One episode “Bad Blood,” in which “Stabler and Benson will never forget the case where solving the crime was so much worse than the crime itself.” As the episodes accumulate, a story about recurring nightmares, alien abductions, and missing girls takes form, lurking beneath the urban landscape of the familiar police procedural.
The collection’s one misstep is “The Resident,” which follows a young writer’s emotional collapse at an artist’s retreat. The story is eerie and cinematic, but fails to reach the thoughtful heights of Machado’s other stories. It’s also difficult to shake a feeling that “The Resident” is an inside joke of some kind, lampooning the creative environments that Machado herself may have had to endure. The story is also one of the longest in the collection, and provides an unfortunate lull to an otherwise stellar book.
Her Body and Other Parties invokes the best of Shirley Jackson and feels akin to the work of contemporary writers Han Kang and Yoko Ogawa. Machado’s strength is her ability to disarm, and these terrific stories brilliantly upend metaphorical literary horror with a powerful sexuality that’s as alluring as it is upsetting.