Posts Tagged ‘Carmen Maria Machado’

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.