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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.