Review: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977887

By Wesley Cohen

From the start of her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado demonstrates that she understands the power of stories, their place as both a tool and a weapon.

In the first story, “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator tells the reader about having sex with her boyfriend, “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.”

Later, in “The Resident,” a different storyteller is asked about the protagonist in her novel-in-progress, a thinly veiled autobiography: “Lydia filled my glass to the brim. ‘Do you ever worry,’ she asked me, ‘that you’re the madwoman in the attic?….And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well?’”

The women here consider their womanhood at arm’s length, weighing the appropriate archetypes—the slut, the aging mother, the mad lesbian—but they never fall comfortably inside a category. Like real women, they are self-aware, and acknowledge that how one’s story is framed is often just as important as what happens in it.

The stories, too, defy categorization. They take strange forms, they fade from reality to dream to myth, they twist in the reader’s hands and transform from one paragraph to the next.

Watching Machado work is an absolute delight. Story structures and techniques that might feel gimmicky or undeserved in different contexts land perfectly. Machado delivers surreal elements and plot twists with complete authority, and her characters feel so well drawn that it’s impossible to resist being pulled into their worlds headfirst.

Just as some of George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December use futuristic and fantastical elements to riff on the more horrific facets of contemporary society, Machado borrows the language of fairy tales to illustrate the horrors of womanhood, with ghosts, doppelgangers, headless women, and girls gone invisible.  But these stories are slippery, and they use magic and horror to unexpected ends.

In “Eight Bites,” a faceless, body-shaped mass appears in a woman’s basement after she has gastric bypass surgery, a grotesque symbol of the weight she’s lost, but instead of angry, the form is mournful, even maternal. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” an epidemic of “fading” is turning young women into bodiless phantoms, and a simplistic metaphor for female silence or weight loss seems close at hand. But the story pivots and focuses instead on the narrator’s relationship with a woman who’s fading, her struggle to support her girlfriend as she vanishes. Even when roaming misty forests or possessed by ghosts, these characters feel deeply human, flawed, and self-aware, and their fears and desires are urgently real.

Machado plays with story form throughout the collection to great effect. In “Inventory,” the story is a list of the narrator’s every sexual experience; “The Husband Stitch” includes absurd stage directions for a reader to perform the story aloud: “Give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.”

Of these formal experiments, “Especially Heinous” is the most impressive. The sixty-page story, which originally appeared as a novella in The American Reader, comprises 272 entirely imaginary episode summaries for Law & Order SVU. Just pulling off this sort of structure is incredible, but Machado tells a story that wouldn’t work in any other format, layering rape on murder on abuse until the weight of all these crimes, and all these stories, presses on the reader with new power. That these summaries are also filled with fantasy, humor, absurdism, and even hope is a testament to Machado’s extreme skill.

This quality—that Machado muddies the horror and darkness of Her Body and Other Parties with moments of romance, eroticism, and hope—is another joy of the collection, and ultimately what keeps it from being a beautifully executed bummer. The narrator’s daydream of queer domestic bliss in “Mothers” is particularly stunning, a utopian vision rarely explored among the hypersexualized depictions of women-loving women in popular culture.

Her Body and Other Parties is a stunning debut that takes the fabulist short story to new heights. Feminist horror lovers and short story fanatics should run, not walk, to their local bookstore and bring these strange stories home.

Review: Catapult by Emily Fridlund

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Catapult
by Emily Fridlund
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1946448057

By Noah Sanders

Emily Fridlund’s new book of short stories—Catapult—plays in the sandbox of transition. Her characters are mired in the midway point between what’s occurred and what happens next, attempting (and mostly failing) to try and suss out just how to take that next step. Sometimes it’s puberty, sometimes it’s the jagged end of a relationship that’s gone on just a few years too long, regardless, her characters swim in the cloudy waters between two points, reaching out for one shore, while the other slowly fades behind them.  

Fridlund writes about transitions—emotional, physical, even geographical—but more so about the state of transition. Her characters seem stuck, mired in the midst of a life change but unwilling or unable to seal the deal, to move forward. The story “Catapult” starts with this line from a 14-year old girl halfway between puberty and not, “That summer I was reading vampire books, so when Noah said no to sex, I let myself pretend that’s what he was.” The story, about that murky grey area between pure childhood and the onset of adolescence, follows its two leads over a summer spent between kid-like ambitions—time travel, building a raft—and unfulfilled sexual desire. Its main character, a girl who’s abandoned her friend group and escaped what may be a troubling family situation, is cresting into pubescence, but still clutching the simpler ideas of both childhood and faith. She and Noah, a devout Christian struggling with the concepts of science, lie in bed entirely naked, not touching, just talking, exploring ideas instead of their own physicality. It is a lovely, heart-breaking portrayal of that last moment when we mourn the childhood slipping through our grasp, but still yearn for whatever it is the future might hold.

Fridlund is particularly interested in the grey areas between moments. Her stories take place in borderlands between suburbs and the wild, and feature characters held back by their pasts but stumbling inevitably towards the future. In “One You Run From. The Other You Fight” a long-term couple—Nora and Sage—skeptical of the normalized structures of relationships (babies, marriage, etc.) skirt from one event to another, mocking the worlds they’ve avoided so far. The author adeptly portrays a relationship stretched too far, the passion long gone, but the fear of moving on, too much for either to participant to grasp. Only when they arrive at a party with no host in a strange hinterland somewhere between the boxy housing of suburban living and the wilderness that’s been beat back, are they able to see where they’ve come from and potentially where they are going. It is in these boondocks—emotional or otherwise—where the true face of Fridlund’s characters claw their way to the surface.

Each of Fridlund’s stories reads like a novel compressed and though it does work—both “Catapult” and “Lock Jaw” are stellar pieces—occasionally the author reaches for too much. It may be backstory or character motivation or just plot points scattered along the way, but there is an abundance in many stories that reads as clutter rather than atmosphere. Too many narrative threads, too many one-off plot additions shoot out into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Even when Fridlund’s stories overextend, her writing is always spot on. She describes a mosquito’s face as, “like an important utensil”; an elderly dog is “only slightly more animated than an eroded boulder.” Fridlund’s writing—deft and observant, pockmarked with little bursts of joyful description—will pull you forward, even if the outcome isn’t always as satisfying as it might be.

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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We Were Eight Years In Power
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published 2017 by One World
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525624516

By Noah Sanders

You may feel slightly irked that the newest release from massively popular intellectual and memoirist (and comic book writer) Ta-Nehisi Coates has a collection of his already published essays from The Atlantic. For a variety of reasons, you should not be. Even if We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy was just a re-purposed cash grab, a bound assemblage of Coates’ greatest hits from the distinguished magazine over the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, there would be cause for celebration. Coates is a rare intellectual who can, and will, take weighty issuesreparations, America’s historical dependence on slavery, the lesser aspects of Barack Obamaand translate them into palatable essays without losing the fire at his core. Agree or disagree with the points made within this collection, Coates is a writer, and thinker, of immense skill and intelligence. Following his train of thought as he reports, and opines, on the treatment of blacks in America since the time of Roanoke runs the gamut between utter disgust with the country we live in and slack-jawed marvel at Coates ability to make it, strange as it sounds, a pleasure to read.

What pushes We Were Eight Years In Power beyond a dry collection of essays though, is Coates himself. To commemorate the re-release of these pieces of writing, Coates has penned eight original pieces (one for each year) that chart the author’s growth as both a writer and human during the Obama presidency. The new pieces read like commentaries on not only the essay that follows, but Coates himself, his thoughts on writing, his expansion as a thinker, his grappling with newfound fame. They read like DVD commentaries if composed by a MacArthur Grant winning author. Coates, as is his way, doesn’t spare himself or his writing in any way. He tears himself asunder time and time again, exploring what went wrong in his essays, what he wished he’d hit upon, with the travails of youth prevented him from getting on the page.

In “Notes on Year One,” the thought piece before “This Is How We Lost The White Man” (Coates’ essay on Bill Cosby and Black Conservatism), he writes, “In every piece in this book there is a story I told and many more I left untold, for better or worse. In the case of Bill Cosby, especially, it was for worse. That was my shame. That was my failure.” In doing so, Coates places himself as an engaged participant and recorder of American history in the making. The reader watches America grow and contract as we watch Coates do just the same. The essays, impressive as they are, become almost sidebars for the journey of Coates himself, as both human and writer. The memoir pieces create a sinew previously unexplored, a second layer of personal connection to the author, that allows us to see the through-line of Coates’ thinking. It doesn’t seem that revolutionarycommenting on the pieces you’ve previously written in hindsightbut We Were Eight Years In Power speaks volumes for the inclusion of an author’s reflection on his work in collections such as these. As the reader ingests Coates’ critiques and contextual placements of his own work, the pieces seem to pull apart and reform, perceived entirely different in their new context.

There are two main sides of Coates as a writerthe memoirist and the intellectual. Where his essays can tend towards statistical interpretation and flat-out reportage, in his booksThe Beautiful Struggle and Between The World and MeCoates chooses emotion over cold, hard fact, leaving the statistics and statistical interpretations of his essay work on the shelf in favor of wrenching, poetic, emotional release. It’s clear that Coates’ longer pieces stem from the same throbbing intellect that his essays do, but in them, Coates isn’t held back by the restraints of reportage and the wider palette allows him to show how the world his essays paint was one he lived in, was one which personally affected him and his loved one. We Were Eight Years In Power allows the reader to digest the complex ideas of his more academic pursuits, but with Coates as a personal guide. If his books lead us through his life in the face of rampant racism, and if his essays lead us deep into the crevices of his enormous intellect, this book gives readers the best of both worlds.

Review: The Missing Girl by Jacqueline Doyle

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The Missing Girl
by Jacqueline Doyle
Published 2017 by Black Lawrence Press
$8.95 paperback ISBN 978-1-62557-983-6

By Wesley Cohen

In her interview for Speaking of Marvels, Jacqueline Doyle describes the fascination behind her new fiction chapbook The Missing Girl: “For a long while I was haunted by stories of abused or murdered or missing girls.”

The Missing Girl feels like the product of a haunting, an author’s obsession: the collection is claustrophobic in its focus on sexual violence against girls and women. The language is immediate, spare, and aggressive.

Plenty of authors share Doyle’s obsession—“Girl” books are having a heyday—and the fascination with missing girls has already been thoroughly probed. Nonetheless, The Missing Girl’s flashbulb stories feel fresh.

Perhaps it’s “My Blue Heaven” that takes the most novel approach to the oft-described murdered or missing girl. The story inscribes a narrative around Molly, a teenage girl murdered by her adult lover, by weaving together perspectives from her best friend Lizbeth, her male murderer Vern, his wife Edna, and the clerk of the motel where Vern has sex with Molly and then kills her.  Together the many tellings of Molly’s death show the way that this missing girl becomes a symbol, a story, an absence held up and examined from every angle, and shows how outside the archetypal pair of perpetrator and victim, man and girl, there are often other people standing, watching, complicit.

“Something Like That,” is another standout piece. Instead of a girl gone missing, here it is the men who are obscured, blending together as a young woman lists off the attacks and indignities of girlhood. The story has a terrific rhythm and momentum, gathering speed without paragraph breaks and with minimal punctuation:

They said I was lucky nothing really happened, not like the girl down the hall who dropped out. And I guess nothing really happened, at least not compared to high school, when I thought I was in love, at least he said he loved me, and then two of his friends showed up when we were making out in the back seat of his car, and they did things to me, and all three of them laughed and called me a slut. Everyone at school was calling me a slut that year.

Throughout, the stories pinball back and forth between the perspective of the victim and the perpetrator, the abused and the abuser. The effect is dizzying, “He said, she said” writ large.

But in a collection that sets out to explore the phenomenon of The Missing Girl, and is specifically dedicated to missing girls, it’s difficult to account for the stories that continue to erase their experiences and perspectives, as their bodies, uniformly blonde and pale, are disappeared from street corners and into strange cars and silent woods. While Doyle achieves a fascinating narrative effect from sharing victims’ perspectives alongside those of murderers, kidnappers, and rapists, showing these missing girls only through the eyes of their attackers, outlined by male memories and projections and desires, feels like yet another way these girls are made missing.

Through these stories run veins of obfuscation and disbelief, with victims and perpetrators alike lying about their stories, leaving out crucial details, or forgetting what has happened. Time and trauma wear down these narratives into collections of images, disconnected, whose contexts are unclear.

The chapbook’s final offering, “Nola,” is its most rewarding. Here, the narrator is a woman, not a girl, and she looks back on a crime she may have committed against another girl when she was still a child. Doyle doubles down on the uncertainty that makes her previous stories so unsettling, but allows her characters to break out of the adult-male-perpetrator/female-child-victim matrix, letting the crime—the protagonist tying up her friend Nola in the woods as part of a game and then leaving her there—take on more complexity, and letting the narrator exist as a more complete character. Unable to find proof of Nola’s disappearance online or figure out whether Nola ever made it back home, the narrator, now a grandmother, is haunted by apparitions of Nola on the street and dreams of her each night.

Like “Nola”’s narrator, readers of The Missing Girl can expect to find themselves haunted by these stories for days after they set the chapbook down.