How do you write fiction about love and sex? There are established genres for that: romance, myth, pornography. Loss and abuse? We’ve settled that, too: melodrama, horror, tragedy.
Yet reading “Her Body and Other Parties,” the remarkable debut story collection by Carmen Maria Machado, you feel those familiar forms unraveling and reweaving in real time.
New writers often get called “surprising” because they’ve slapped new designs on old facades. With Machado, everything feels razed and built anew.
Her sense of structure has much to do with that.
“Especially Heinous,” for instance, borrows the titles of “Law & Order: SVU” episodes and rejiggers the deadpan, flat language of plot summaries to slip in a tale of a detective haunted by ghosts of young victims. The story at once satirizes pat, exploitative, “SVU”-ish narratives while delivering more provocative imagery: “The medical examiner can’t bring herself to admit that sometimes she’s the one who wants to be cut open, to have someone tell her all of her own secrets,” she writes.
Similarly, “The Husband Stitch” revises the fairy tale of a woman with a ribbon around her neck to explore clichés about women’s fragility. Machado intersperses one mother’s story with references to legends of mothers attacked by wolves, or disappeared, or sickened, or haunted. “I don’t need to tell you the moral of this story,” she writes after one example. “I think you already know what it is.” It’s a dreamlike vision of the condescending mommy-as-failure narrative.
Machado’s stories occasionally evoke Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith, two other writers who tell darkly subverted domestic stories.
“The Resident,” for instance, is narrated by a writer headed to a retreat at a place called Devil’s Throat, but its haunted-house mood is deeply interior, a function of the narrator’s own panic about herself. (“What is worse: being locked outside of your own mind, or being locked inside of it?”)
Ghostly voices and infections are common in these stories. Its women are always on the verge of harm, death, disappearance.
Machado delivers that sensibility most clearly in “Real Women Have Bodies,” about a woman working in a dress shop while a pandemic spreads, causing women’s bodies to slowly vanish. It’s at once sci-fi, horror, romance and an allegory on the waifishness our culture confuses for perfection in women. “It doesn’t do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away,” Machado writes. “You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.”
“Her Body and Other Parties” is on the shortlist for this year’s National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, but it also feels determined to live well beyond annual prize-giving cycles, to become that classic misfit survivor that readers and writers keep returning to.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and a judge for the Kirkus Prize.
Her Body and Other Parties
By: Carmen Maria Machado.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 245 pages, $16.