Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories BY Carmen Maria Machado. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 248 pages. $16.
The cover of Her Body and Other Parties: Stories

In the month since I began writing this review, allegations of sexual harassment by powerful men in the restaurant and entertainment industries, the art world, and the highest reaches of politics have become ubiquitous. A list of “shitty media men” circulated as a shared Google spreadsheet, sparking outcries over the behavior of writers, editors, and on-air personalities. The Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. Reflecting on her assault by the producer, actress Asia Argento told the New Yorker, “It’s twisted. A big fat man wanting to eat you. It’s a scary fairy tale.”

Carmen Maria Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties has hit at a particularly potent moment of cultural reckoning over women, sexual violence, and the horror stories women tell—or are told about them. These are the themes that animate the eight stories in Machado’s debut, which mixes urban legend, classic horror stories, and tales of the apocalypse, among other genres, to create fictional realities just a shade away from the current madness. As Machado said of the novels of young-adult fiction writer Lois Duncan, these stories walk “a delicate line between impossibly terrifying and terrifyingly possible.”

The horrors encountered by Machado’s characters are fantastical yet eerily familiar. Giving ghostly form to our anxieties about the female body, beauty, lust, and power, Machado’s stories feature women stricken by a plague that makes them fade away into imperceptibility, or haunted by the fat they’d hoped to shed. Others live one step ahead of an unclassifiable virus spread through human touch, hear the strange and sad interior monologues of actors in porn, or suffer nightly visitations from girls with bells for eyes. “Give us voices. Give us voices. Give us voices,” they demand.

Machado’s stories return to one of the oldest functions of storytelling: To warn of danger while offering the comfort of solidarity. Rooted in a thoughtful queer feminism, Machado’s work is never reductive or dogmatic about the perils facing women, refusing “the patriarchy” as a convenient villain for every circumstance. Instead, she zeroes in on the benevolent sexism sometimes wielded by those closest to us. In “The Husband Stitch,” loosely based on the macabre children’s story “The Green Ribbon,” the protagonist falls victim to her husband, a man who simply can’t believe that his wife would refuse to give him what he desires after so many years of affectionate marriage. “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt,” she says, just before she allows him to untie the ribbon that keeps her head attached to her neck. “He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet—”

Like so many women in fairy tales, she ends up dead.

Similarly, Machado doesn’t shy away from depicting of the ravages of internalized sexism. In “Eight Bites,” the main character inherits a troubled relationship to food and thinness from the women in her life. Her mother restricted herself by taking just eight bites at each meal––“Iron will, slender waistline”––and her sisters each offer her impossibly sunny accounts of their bariatric weight-loss surgeries. This is how one of them describes the aftermath: “My joy danced around my house, like a child, and I danced with her. We almost broke two vases that way!” Even the female doctor who performs these surgeries advertises them as a way to become “the happiest woman alive.”

After she, too, undergoes the operation, the self-loathing she’d once directed at her body is externalized onto the fleshy, lumpy ghost that now haunts her house. The story culminates in an act of violence against what was once a part of herself, justified by the gospel of weight loss. “A new woman does not just slough off her old self; she tosses it aside with force,” she reminds herself––which, in her case, takes the form of beating that defenseless ghost so viciously that she pulls a muscle.

Despite their difficult subject matter and use of darker genres, Machado’s stories are far from unrelentingly grim. They’re shot through with rich depictions of bodily pleasures, especially food and sex. Machado, who publishes erotica under the pen name Olivia Glass, writes about sex in a way that feels casual, queer, and true to life. Her characters tend to be sexually fluid, nonchalantly attracted to both men and women, and lacking any sense of trauma tied to queer identity. Their encounters are detailed in lush prose that picks up the push-and-pull rhythms of a pleasurable encounter: “Back in Bad’s bed, in the good bed, as she slid her hand into me, and I pulled and she gave and I opened and she came without touching herself, and I responded by losing all speech,” is how one woman describes the sex with her girlfriend that magically produces a baby.

Further, Machado writes with an astringent humor that teeters into satire and the absurd, seen most strongly in the centerpiece of her collection, “Especially Heinous,” sixty pages of bizarre, hallucinatory summaries of imaginary episodes of Law & Order: SVU. One episode, “Ripped,” features a would-be brigand who kidnaps an actress and ties her “to the mast of a ship in New York Harbor.” “He wanted her to fight back, she tells Stabler. He wanted her to slap him, and call him a scoundrel, and then to marry him. He called himself Reginald.” Though ludicrous, the story’s underlying point––that stories, even, or perhaps especially, stupid ones, have a powerful hand in producing toxic masculinity––comes through keenly.

It’s easy to see why Her Body has been named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award, and earned glowing reviews. What’s especially encouraging is that many of these reviews––almost all by women––are so good, obviously personal, and deeply felt. “I love the ability of stories to have spaces in them where the reader can rush in,” Machado said in an interview with the Paris Review. Working within traditions, both high and low, of feminists rewriting fairy tales, fans creating spin-offs of their favorite shows, and Girl Scouts exaggerating scary tales around the campfire, these stories act as invitations for further imaginings. They’re generative, generous, and thrilling. 

Rebecca Stoner is a writer living in Chicago.