Archive for September, 2018

The Hothouse by the East River

September 30, 2018

Having toyed with the murder mystery (without murder or mystery) in Not to Disturb, Spark turned her hand to a different genre in The Hothouse by the East River: the ghost story. Once again, she subverts the reader’s expectations (Peter Kemp has described the novel as an “expectation-jarring parody”) by creating a ghost story in which the dead are haunted by the living.

Elsa, in her usual place in the titular New York apartment, sitting by the window gazing out at the river, tells her husband, Paul, that she met an old acquaintance while shopping for shoes: Helmut Kiel. Kiel was a German POW whom they met in England during the war working at The Compound, “a small outpost of British Intelligence in the heart of the countryside.” The only problem is they both believed Kiel to be dead. Later Elsa is dismissive – “The man can’t be Kiel, he’s young enough to be Kiel’s son” – but the idea has already taken root in Paul’s mind, his concern that the past has caught up with them exacerbated by his believe that Kiel and Elsa had an affair in 1944.

As the present becomes stranger and stranger – Paul believes he has spotted a coded message on the soles of her new boots – the past is presented as reliable and certain:

“In the summer of 1944…life was more vivid than it is now. Everything was more distinct.”

(Later Paul will declare, “Back in 1944 when people were normal and there was a world war on…”). Spark, in her conceit, captures the feeling of many that life during the war was somehow more ‘real’; it is ‘factual’ (and presumably partly autobiographical) as opposed to the ‘fictional’ world of present day New York. Part of that falseness is the American obsession with psychiatry. The city is described as:

“New York, home of the vivisectors of the mind, and of the mentally vivisected still to be reassembled, of those who live intact, habitually wondering about their states of sanity, and home of those whose minds have been dead, bearing the scars of resurrection.”

Paul cannot decide whether Elsa, whose sanity he believes to be precarious, is going mad:

“Is she sly and sophisticated, not mad after all?”

Spark places little faith in her psychiatrist, Garven, at one point reducing him to a more obviously servile role when he replaces Elsa’s maid. When Elsa says, “He’s looking for the cause and all I’m giving him are effects,” the comment seems playfully aimed at the reader too.

Meanwhile, Paul and Elsa’s son, Pierre, is staging Peter Pan using only geriatric actors. “To die,” Barrie suggests, “will be an awfully big adventure,” and Spark has used this as her starting point, stripping it of all sentimentality. That Paul and Elsa are not what they first appear is hinted at from the opening pages. Elsa’s shadow (another Pan reference) is frequently mentioned as casting in “the wrong direction”:

“He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be.”

In one scene, both amusing and grotesque, another colleague from The Compound, Princess Xavier, who has secreted silk worm eggs in her bosom, causes alarm when they hatch, giving her the appearance of a rotting corpse. The ‘hothouse’ itself is a purgatory, “the air quivers with central heating that cannot be turned off very far.”

If Elsa seems mad, it is in fact Paul who is deluded, believing that Elsa is a ghost he has summoned, telling her to:

“Go back, go back to the grave from where I called you.”

As Elsa reveals to him, however, he “died too… That’s one of the things you don’t realise, Paul.” (Perhaps it is significant that the river Lethe in Hades is usually pictured as the easternmost). In the near-farce of the novel’s final scenes, Paul and Elsa are chased by their dead colleagues through the streets of New York, city of the living dead, until they finally accept their fate.

The Hothouse by the East River is another sharp, satirical, subversive Spark novel, the abandon of its more surreal moments tempered by its serious intent.

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The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

September 28, 2018

The Penguin European Writers series continues to bring neglected writers back into print with perhaps its most obscure entry yet, Violette Leduc. Leduc was born in France in 1907, publishing her first novel in 1942 with encouragement from Simone de Beauvoir. Many of her novels have been translated but most of are out of print, the exception being Thérèse and Isabelle, a novel about a lesbian love affair which was only published after her death. Her most famous book is probably her memoir, La Batarde, which appeared in 1964. (The most recent English-language edition is from Dalkey Archive in 2003). The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, a novella under a hundred pages, was published the year after.

If the title suggests wealth and comfort, our protagonist – starving, with only a few coins to her name – is living in a very different world. At sixty she “isn’t really old by today’s standards,” as Deborah Levy points out in her introduction, but she feels she has no future beyond her day-to-day existence, “detached from the world by her idleness and her age.” She manages her hunger and isolation with a routine which is counted in at the beginning of the first chapter:

“She had to hurry out to reach the station at exactly the same moment as the train itself.”

“The rules of habit were in charge again,” she tells herself, “Without the rules she would have weakened and stumbled.” Surrounded by food, she instead spends fifty-five francs on a Metro ticket, attracted to the crowds:

“…what she wanted was their warmth: she had deprived herself of bread, now they were to give her their warmth in its place.”

Her most valuable possession is a fox fur which she found one day in a dustbin:

“The fox had offered itself to the first comer and she had been stronger than all the others.”

Her love for the fox fur is physical, like that of a lover:

“She plunged her face into her little one’s naked groin and snuggled there.”

This also makes her possessive, unwilling to wear the fox fur in fear it may be taken from her; keeping it in a packing case and only taking it out at night to look at:

“She would squander a match for him on dark and moonless nights; she would move the flame to and fro along his length, enchanted at burning her fingers for his sake.”

Now, however, her fortunes are so low that she feels she must sell it. The fox-fur, however, is only of value to her, dismissed with a, “Aren’t you ashamed to come bothering people like this!” Exhausted, she slumps onto the pavement, but is woken when a man puts money in her hand:

“Having succeeded once, she tried it again. This time she formed her outstretched palm into a little hollow and stared down into it, absorbed by each dear wrinkle cutting across it.”

In her hopelessness she has found, in begging, an unexpected supply of money, and therefore food. Her thoughts of selling the fox fur seem like a betrayal she has been saved from.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is a simple story but told with the intensity of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. It is beautifully written – take, for example, this description from the opening page:

“February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners.”

The narrative inhabits the world of the ‘lady’ so entirely it is difficult to resist the idea that the fox fur is a living companion. And, just when you are uncertain where Leduc may take us in the final pages, she provides an ending which is surely deliberate in its ambiguity. By this point many readers will be convinced, as Levy begins by telling us, Leduc’s novels are “works of genius and also a bit peculiar.”

Promise at Dawn

September 23, 2018

For a novelist who has won the Prix Goncourt twice (once under his own name and once using a pseudonym), Romain Gary has been rather shoddily treated in the English-speaking world, something that is made all the more shameful by the fact that he wrote a number of his novels in English and then translated them into French. Hopefully, this is changing, with a new translation of The Kites appearing from Penguin Classics this year, followed by a reprint of his autobiography, Promise at Dawn, in its 1961 translation by John Markham Beach. This neglect might suggest that Gary is a challenging or difficult writer, but on the evidence of these two books, he is quite the opposite: readable, entertaining and moreish.

Promise at Dawn is the story of his formation as writer, a story that is as much his mother’s as his own. Gary was born in 1914 in Vilnius which, at that time, was part of Russia. His mother was a Russian actress who, his father having left them, is presented throughout the book as a single parent whose only care is for her son (Gary also suggests that his father is not, in fact, the Jewish businessman whose surname he bears, but the actor and film star Ivan Mosjoukine). From Vilnius they move to Warsaw and later, when Gary is fourteen, to Nice in France, a country which has always been his mother’s desired destination, everywhere else regarded as:

“…’a temporary halt’, as my mother never failed to point out, on our way to France, a country where we were to make our permanent home, which was eagerly awaiting me, and where I would ‘grow up, study and become somebody.’”

Gary becoming ‘somebody’ is his mother’s obsession, an obsession he realises originates in the fact that his “mother’s own artistic ambitions had never been fulfilled, and she was dreaming for me of a career she had never know herself.”

“Yes, my mother had talent – and I have never recovered from it.”

His mother’s attempts to identify his talent do not begin with writing, which might even be described as something of a last resort. He tells of early efforts with a violin:

“All I remember today of the ‘Maestro’ is the expression of profound astonishment on his face each time I dutifully applied my bow to the strings; and I can still hear the cry ‘Ai, ai, ail’ he would utter, covering his ears with both hands as I was giving my best.”

Gary also fails to make the grade as a dancer, and painting is rejected as, in his mother’s eyes, “all painters were condemned to poverty, despair, disease and drunkenness.”

“And so, with music, dance and painting out of the way, we resigned ourselves to literature.”

This self-deprecating humour runs through the book, aimed at both Gary and his mother, though, it has to be said, without resentment. His mother’s self-sacrifice and devotion overrides any sense that she is pushing him too hard. Momentarily prosperous, his mother’s business collapses when she devotes herself instead to caring for Gary when he falls seriously ill, and, finding herself bankrupt, they leave for Warsaw, still aiming for France. There they live hand to mouth (“She turned her hand to a hundred and one things to keep us afloat.”) but Gary remains the priority:

“…every morning at ten, she turned up punctually with her Thermos flask of hot chocolate and her bread and butter.”

Eventually they reach Nice where their precarious existence continues, supported at times by mysterious money orders which we assume come from Gary’s father. Gary develops his own survival instincts, at one point pawning their furniture, and on another occasion making the most of a wealthy lodger who is taken with his mother.

Beyond his relationship with his mother, the book is probably more interesting as a historical document than as the diary of a developing writer as a result of Gary’s participation in the Second World War. Though denied an officer’s rank in the French Air Force (a result, he feels, of his status as a foreigner and a Jew), he determines to get to England to continue fighting after France’s surrender. It is during his stay in England that he writes his first novel, A European Education, but he reveals little about his writing process beyond his determination to succeed for his mother’s sake.

Promise at Dawn is a captivating autobiography, and I would challenge any reader to leave its pages without falling at least a little in love with Gary. It’s the smaller stories which make it such a delight, like that of the neighbour, Mr Piekielny, who believed his mother’s claim that Gary would one day be French Ambassador, and asked only that he be mentioned when Gary met the rich and famous:

“Then something happened in me. I could almost see the little man jumping up and down, stamping his feet and tearing at his goatee in a desperate attempt to attract my attention and remind me of my promise… I heard myself announce to the Queen in a loud and perfectly audible voice:
‘At number 16, Grand Pohulanka, in the town of Vilna, there lived a certain Mr Piekielny…’”

Hopefully Gary’s works continue to return to print as I, for one, would like to read them all.

And the Wind Sees All

September 18, 2018

Peirene Press’ final novella of 2018, Gudmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All, is the story of an Icelandic village. The novel takes us on a tour of the village streets and houses, revealing the secret histories of its inhabitants. Such omnipotence is presumably explained by the fact that the narrator is, as the title suggests, the wind, addressing us in a brief opening chapter:

“I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.”

The numerous chapters which follow are connected by Kata, the choir mistress, as she bicycles to the village hall where the choir will perform that night. After the first chapter, which is devoted to her, she appears, albeit briefly, in all the others:

“From the window he sees Kata Choir gliding past on her bike, her forehead wrinkled in concentration, wearing a white dress with blue polkas dots.”

The polka dot dress not only ensure she is visible as she passes, but is linked to the past she, like the other characters, carries with her:

“She was wearing the white dress with the blue polka dots the day she was loved.”

We discover that Kata (the only character who is not Icelandic having arrived in the village, via various countries, from Slovakia) was once almost engaged to Andreas. Much of the chapter describes what would have happened, but clearly didn’t: “She would have been loved.” Her past may be tragic, but it’s difficult not to see her as a joyful presence in the novel, not simply because of the image she creates but as a result of the many friendly greetings she receives. The Reverend Saemundur believes she is “as beautiful as the life force itself.” She hasn’t worn the dress since the day she lost Andreas, which suggests that this evening, and perhaps her recognised place in village life, represents a happiness which allows her to face the past. That the entire novella takes place during her journey also makes clear that we are witnessing but one moment in the village’s life.

Each short chapter which follows introduces us to further characters from the village, some of whom, of course, are related. In most cases the narrative also divulges elements of their past creating a cumulative impression of the sadness on which our lives are built. Arno, for example, has returned to the village after a successful career because he “had to get away”:

“Everybody knew he was guilty of something.”

Gudjon and Sveinsina sit together in their house but are immersed in entirely different thoughts: his of bird-watching, hers of her previous husband who killed himself. Teddi, Sveinsina’s son, is approaching the harbour in a fishing boat, but was once a singer:

“The village remembers the wreck you were when you returned home with shattered dreams.”

Svenni remembers being abused as a child:

“Then hand moved further up. Svenni didn’t know what to do to get rid of it, whether he should move away.”

The Reverend Saemundur has an online gambling addiction. Lalli Puffin remembers telling his wife, as she lies dying, about an affair he had with Emilia, “even expecting a visit from some young person saying: You are my father.” We already know, however, that the child, died.

If this makes the book sound bleak, that is not the impression it makes on the reader. There are first of all, happy memories as well: both Kalli and Josa, for example, although long separated, fondly remember making love in a church. Both Arni and Teddi have, in different ways, saved themselves by returning to the village. Teddi reflects:

“As you make for harbour, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.”

In a sense it is the village which is the beacon, and Thorsson seems to find hope in village life, in the resilience of his characters and of Iceland itself (the financial crash also features at points). And the Wind Sees All may not be a twenty-four hour Ulysses, but it similarly fills its minutes with vibrant, messy, tragic, glorious life.

Moving Parts

September 13, 2018

When Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was was published last year it became one of the first Thai books to appear in English. Now the same publisher (Tilted Axis Press) and translator (Mui Poopopsakul) offer a second collection of Yoon’s stories, Moving Parts. The reappearance of ‘part’ in the title is coincidental to say the least, but here refers to the physical parts of the body. It is in this sense that each story is introduced as Part 1, Part 2, and so on – though discreet in plot and character, they combine, Frankenstein-like, the various parts of the body, from the finger of the first story through tongue, feet, hand, until we reach the end (the appropriately titled ‘Butt Plug’).

A strain of surrealism runs throughout most of the stories. In ‘Yucking Finger’, the protagonist, Maekee, is possessed of a finger which expresses its disgust by voicing the word ‘Yuck’, first heard when he is unable to complete a Maths equation for his teacher:

“From that moment on, whatever Maekee held or touched appeared tip be source of dissatisfaction for the finger, particularly if the situation involved an important matter in his life.”

Most of the stories focus on one scene, but ‘Yucking Finger’ follows Maekee through his life with the finger commenting in disgust at every moment of happiness: his marriage, his career as an architect, the house he designs and builds to live in with his wife. It is also unusual in having a more traditional, punchy ending as Yoon’s stories tend to avoid the need for a twist, reading instead like a scene extracted from a life which otherwise continues.

Elements of the surreal feature in two stories which focus on the rear. In ‘Mock Tail’ we encounter, with no explanation, a society in which it is normal to have a tail – so much so that when Shamada is born without one her father goes to great lengths so that no-one knows, buying a series of false or ‘mock’ tails as she grows older. Now she has reached a point in her relationship with her boyfriend, Komtal, where she has decided to sleep with him:

“For an average girl, the apprehension over losing her virginity couldn’t stray far from a certain body part that would be invaded and explored for the first time. But Shamada had a different body part that had been causing her distress deep inside for a long time… Shamada had no tail!”

Yoon juxtaposes Shamada’s thoughts on how she will tell her boyfriend (and how he will react) with Komtal watching ‘mock tail’ porn with a room-mate. In this way the story becomes a commentary on our attitudes towards sex and body shape. There is further social commentary in ‘Butt Plug’, where Paan suddenly witnesses a naked body falling past his window. When he looks down he sees the body but “not one single person was paying attention to this death.” He goes down to investigate, meeting two young women in the lift who seem upset. When he asks them if they are aware of the death they tell him their emotional state is the result of another matter entirely:

“My butt plug is no longer functioning, that’s what the doctor says.”

In the world of the story this is immediately accepted as matter of great distress. Yoon has deliberately picked something ridiculous to emphasise his point, made earlier:

“Each person’s attention meandered only within a small radius around him or her.”

‘Long Heart’ is technically a science fiction story, but, like all of Yoon’s work, is so grounded in the everyday that such a genre label is misleading. Its central character, BC, works for a company which has created an artificial heart which can prolong life. The story begins with him being dropped in the now derelict area where he was brought up. As a representative of technology and the future, he contrasts not only with his surroundings, but also with his background as his father was an antique dealer. In a sense the two men are connected – one preserves objects, the other people – but BC feels their view of life is very different:

“A clock that can no longer tell time has no use, of course, but what I helped build, it boosts the quality of life; it gives someone like me the opportunity to invent new things, to continue helping to develop the world for hundreds of years longer.”

In other stories it is physical deformities which are central – both for the man with dark glasses in ‘Eye Spy: a One-Act Play’ and the man in room seventeen in ‘Destiny’s a Dick’. In both, the story tells of the discovery of what is unusual about them by a young woman, though these are not stories of revelation where characters suddenly develop insight. Yoon’s characters are generally ordinary people who are not looking to examine their lives too closely.

Moving Parts is a collection of short stories which is at once playful and serious. It uncovers the everyday lives of its characters from strange angles in a way that is at once distinctive and recognisable. Tilted Axis and Mui Poopopsakul should be congratulated on bring this writer to an English-speaking audience.

The Tree of the Toraja

September 11, 2018

Philippe’s Claudel’s last book, 2012’s Parfums, was a series of short autobiographical essays, each memory evoked by a particular scent. Though his latest, The Tree of the Toraja (similarly translated by Euan Cameron), is categorised as fiction, it too takes the form of memoir, but whereas Parfums was a catalogue of life, The Tree of the Toraja is a meditation on death. It begins with the burial customs of the Toraja of Indonesia, particularly the way in which they treat the bodies of children:

“A cavity is carved out of the trunk of the tree. The little corpse wrapped in a shroud is placed inside. The opening of the sylvan tomb is filled in with a weave of branches and clothes. Gradually, over the course of years, the wood of the tree grows over it, retaining the child’s body within its own large body, beneath its newly healed bark. Then, very slowly, in harmony with the patient rhythm of the tree’s growth, begins the journey that will see it rise upwards towards the heavens.”

He contrasts this foregrounding of mortality with what he sees as our avoidance of death, a desire to look away, commenting, in reference to the reconstructed faces of a group of elderly American tourists, on “all the useless artifices we apply to our bodies to elude time and our fears.” The issue becomes more personal when he returns home to discover that one of his closest friends, his producer, Eugene, has cancer:

“In our society, the word ‘cancer’ resonates as though it were an ante-room of death.”

Eugene does, indeed, die six months later. His illness is the lens through which Claudel reflects not only on death but on his life. Their long relationship – Eugene was the producer of his first film – means that we learn something of his career as a film-maker, as far back as his early interest in film, sparked by Sergio Leone:

“I remember the eyes of the hero, immense on the screen of the Georges cinema. Two enormous eyes that completely filled the canvas… For the first time, I realised that’s someone had decided to focus on a small aspect of the actor’s expression, and to confront the audience with his gigantic eyes. Just as later on, in the same way, in this same film, he chose to make the hero’s body smaller, to reduce it to the size of an ant, both he and his horse, and to lose them in the landscape, a tiny moving fragment of life in the red stone desert.”

This tells us something of Claudel’s own approach, a combination of quiet moments in close-up and distant reflection. We see this particularly in his relationship with Elena, a relationship which begins with observation:

“A permanently jammed blind revealed her bedroom… She had never appeared to be concerned by my presence, nor by that of other inhabitants in the building who, like me, were able to watch her every move.”

They eventually meet in such an unlikely way one assumes it must be true, as she is the doctor he is put in contact with by Eugene’s daughter to ask about the development of serious illnesses. It is she who focuses his thoughts on our relationship with the body itself:

“For years you have lived with it, in it, in perfect osmosis… Then time slowly began to erode your partner… Eventually we forget the qualities of the other person and only see what is irritating us…”

As their relationship progresses, Claudel will continue, at times, to withdraw himself from her, as though looking from a distance, even as they are together:

“When, after making love, Elena laid her face in the hollow of my shoulder and closed her eyes, I could not rid myself of the thought she was sleeping on death, that I was a recumbent effigy but she did not know this yet…”

It is Elena who will provide the novel with hope, though it has to be said that Claudel’s love life, which includes regularly sleeping with his ex-wife in a hotel room, appears – to this UK reader at least – almost cartoonishly French. It does, however, contrast an openness towards sex with a reluctance to discuss death.

The Tree of the Toraja is more memoir than philosophical tract, and all the better for it. Claudel is an engaging narrator, and many readers will identify with both his fears and experiences. His story is lightened by a number of poignant moments, my favourite being when he and Eugene leave the hospital for a nearby café and encounter Milan Kundera, who Eugene describes as “the writer who has mattered more to me than anyone else.” This chance encounter is typical of the coincidences and collisions which kindle Claudel’s thinking and make the book such a pleasure.

Love

September 3, 2018

Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room remains one of my favourite Peirene Press titles, an unsettling exploration of a mother-daughter relationship. Four years on another of Orstavik’s short novels, Love, has belatedly appeared in English (this time translated by Martin Aitken). It, too, focuses on a mother and child, though, if The Blue Room suggested an over-bearing, over-protective mother, Love presents us with something quite different.

Even in its opening chapter there seems to be a disconnect between Vibeke and her son, Jon. While he eagerly awaits her return from work, she enters the house without giving him a thought. We know this as Orstavik presents the narrative from both Vibeke and Jon’s point of view, moving between them from paragraph to paragraph. This technique will be important later when the characters separate, but even here seems designed to demonstrate their apartness. Though she is home, Vibeke has little thought for Jon, but continues to think about work and “the brown-eyed engineer” who “had smiled at her at several points in the presentation.” That he is on her mind is obvious when she sees the tail lights of a car disappearing:

“The engineer, she thinks, perhaps it was him.”

As a single mother, exhausted after a day’s work, her daydreams are perhaps excusable, and even her impatience with her son when, though speaking to him kindly:

“Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something?”

As Jon leaves to sell raffle tickets for the sports club he has joined (the two of them are recent arrivals in the village, with a back story only vaguely hinted at), Vibeke is, again, elsewhere (“To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.”) She bathes herself in preparation for a night out while Jon endures a number of strange encounters beginning with an old man inviting him into his basement. These encounters, with various strangers, seem designed to suggest a series of possible dangers to an adult perspective, while at the same time conveying the essential strangeness of childhood where so many experiences are new. (Take, for example, the teenage girl who invites him in to listen to music and then fall asleep).

It’s a strangeness which, admittedly on the basis of two books, seems typical of Orstvik’s work, making the mundane appear almost surreal. It’s echoed in the white haired woman whom Vibeke meets at the fair (where she has gone without Jon, seemingly satisfied “most likely he’s doing something in his room”):

“The woman dressed in white stand so on a little platform that runs along the front of the stall, surveying the fairground… Vibeke sees her face is powdered white, her lips too. She picks a ticket and pays the woman what she says they cost.”

The woman in white will haunt the novel, like a ghost in both her appearance and ability to appear. Her unspecified connection to the man Vibeke meets at the fair, Tom, gives her an enhanced sense of threat. While Vibeke is with Tom, Jon arrives back home to find himself without his key. Noticing the car is missing, he assumes that his mother must be preparing for his birthday the next day:

“Maybe she’s run out of something for the cake, he thinks. Eggs, maybe, or flour, and now she’s popped out to borrow some. That’ll be it.”

The narratives are now so divergent that it is possible to wonder if Jon exists. Could Vibeke really have forgotten about his birthday, or, indeed, about him?

It is likely that sympathy for Vibeke will vary from reader to reader. Her loneliness is evident, though the vagueness of her backstory suggests Orstavik wishes her to be judge on the actions of one night. The ending is particularly ominous: although Jon has escaped the potential hazards of strangers, he remains outside on a night which Orstavik has repeatedly emphasised as cold.

Just like The Blue Room, Love is a disturbing novel which forces us to re-evaluate the assumption of a natural bond between mother and child, and therefore our idea of love. Orstavik is a writer who fearlessly transcribes the terrifying in the everyday.

Her Body & Other Parties

September 1, 2018

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Carmen Maria Machado described her favourite genre as ‘literary with lots of sex’, instantly providing a succinct summary of her debut collection, Her Body & Other Parties. Sex seems never far away in the eight stories included, with the seventeen-year-old, narrator of the first and most famous, ‘The Husband Stitch’, describing her desire for a boy at a party on the opening page. At the heart of the story is a ribbon the narrator wears around her neck which, she tells her husband, no-one can touch. (Machado first encountered this story, of which there are many versions, as a child). Perhaps originally suggesting a fear of male sexual aggression, here the narrator is confident in her sexual identity and needs:

“It is not normal that a girl teaches her boy, but I am only showing him what I want, what plays on the insides of my eyelids as I fall asleep.”

This does not prevent the boy, later her husband, from wanting to touch the ribbon, which seems more strongly to represent an ability to preserve anything individual in the relationship. His desire to touch the ribbon (at one point “delicately, as if he is massaging my sex”) is linked to the ‘husband stich’ of the title, a stitch used to tighten the vagina after giving birth. Both suggest the narrator does not have autonomy over her body even in a loving relationship.

There is more sex again in ‘Inventory’, which is written in the form of a diary of sexual partners but is, in fact, a story about the end of the word. As the story progresses, we realise the narrator is moving away from an advancing epidemic, becoming more and more isolated:

“One man. National Guard. When he first showed up at my doorstep, I assumed he was there to evacuate me, but it turned out he’d abandoned his post.”

The encounters described become her only contact with other people, and the story a memorial to her life written in loneliness.

‘Inventory’, which turns out to be science fiction, demonstrates Machado has little time for genre boundaries. Disease features again in ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ which posits a plague of invisibility:

“She was naked and trying to conceal it. You could see her breasts through her arm, the wall through her torso. She was crying.”

Machado tells the story through a relationship, between the narrator and Petra, in which Petra is fading away: as with all great surrealist stories, it is the realism which makes it great.

‘Eight Bites’ is also about disappearing bodies, though here through surgical intervention. The pressure on the narrator to reduce her appetite to ‘eight bites’ comes from her family:

“My three sisters had gotten the procedure over the years, though they didn’t say anything before showing up for a visit.”

Calling them a “chorus of believers”, Machado suggests a cult of medical intervention. The surgery is not the end of the matter, however; in true horror story fashion, afterwards the narrator is no longer alone in the house.

The horror genre is also influential in ‘The Resident’, in which a writer retreats to an artists’ residency to compete her novel. Though in many ways the most realistic story in the collection, it borrows horror’s atmosphere of imminent doom in everything from place names (‘Devil’s Throat’) to the weather:

“The next day, the mist returned. When I woke it was hovering in my open window, like a solicitous spirit with something to tell me.”

The strange behaviour of the other artists, the fact she has not heard from her girlfriend, even her memories of a Guide camp from childhood: all seem like ominous signs.

This may make Machado sound (correctly) like a dark writer with serious intent, but it would be wrong to mistake this for humourlessness. ‘The Husband Stitch’, for example, begins with instructions on how to read the story out loud:

“ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.
ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.”

The humour may be barbed, but it’s also mischievous. We find a similar approach throughout the story ‘Especially Heinous’ which describes twelve seasons worth of episodes of a crime show, through every cliché into madcap desperation.

Her Body & Other Parties is a powerful collection of short stories. Some are individually stunning but the collection also has a cumulative effect with its focus on the female body and how it is seen (and not seen). Not only the sex, but the genre-hoping originality ensure it is never dull.