How do you describe a book like Her Body and Other Parties to people?
The book is a collection of long short stories and the collection as a whole is perhaps best summed up by the two quotes Carmen Maria Machado puts at the beginning of the book.
My body is a haunted
house that I am lost in.
There are no doors but there are knives
and a hundred windows.
– JACQUI GERMAIN
god should have made girls lethal
when he made monsters of men.
– ELISABETH HEWER
The overall tone is a dark and weird feminism, dressed up as magical realism. All of them are expertly written. There is a very dark undertone to the stories, a sense of how dangerous the world can be for women.
There are eight stories in the book, each very worthy of inclusion in the collection. Here are my thoughts on them.
The Husband Stitch
I had already read The Husband Stitch before I got the book, though I can’t remember where. It was originally published in Granta, I think, but I’ve never read an issue of Granta so that can’t be it. A husband stitch, for those that are not familiar with the term, is when a woman is given an extra stitch if torn during childbirth. The idea being to tighten the vagina to enhance the pleasure of the man during intercourse. As Wikipedia so aptly puts it; Evidence for benefits is lacking.
The idea of a husband stitch, women enduring painful and unnecessary body modification to please men or society, is a them throughout the book. In this case, a woman has a bow around her neck that the husband keeps asking about, though the woman has asked him not to inquire. But of course he does (men can’t endure a women they love carrying a secret). The story ends with her untying the bow on her neck at the husbands insistence and, well, something happens.
This story is a recounting of the narrators sexual partners. There is a world-ending event going on, a virus or something, but the focus is on how the narrator meets each of her partners and how the relationship starts and ends. It is a fascinating story, split into short paragraphs of sexual partners. Here is one of them:
One woman. Blond hair, brash voice, friend of a friend. We married. I’m still not sure if I was with her because I wanted to be or because I was afraid of what the world was catching all around us. Within a year, it soured. We screamed more than we had sex, or even talked. One night, we had a fight that left me in tears. Afterward, she asked me if I wanted to fuck, and undressed before I could answer. I wanted to push her out the window. We had sex and I started crying. When it was over and she was showering, I packed a suitcase and got in my car and drove.
The story is written in several chapters just like that, with details of the world ending spliced into stories of relationships. So. Good.
This story is a great example of the stories in this book. If you’re in the bookstore and want a taste of this before you buy, make sure you read this story. It’s about lesbians who get pregnant.
As I’ve mentioned before, Carmen Maria is an excellent writer. Her prose is divine and she doesn’t shy away from saying things as they are. Or using the word “cunt”.
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, I thought, Thank god we cannot make a baby. We can fuck senselessly and endlessly and come into each other, no condoms or pills or fear or negotiating the days of the month or slumping against bathroom counters holding that stupid white stick up for inspection, Thank god we cannot make a baby. And when she said, “Come for me, come in me,” Thank god we cannot make a baby.
We made a baby. Here she is.
The story goes on about how their relationship progresses, how they grow apart and how the baby grows up and a sibling appears and then it ends abruptly, leaving you thinking Thank god i bought this book.
This was my least favorite of the stories. It is told as a series of summaries of Law&Order:SVU episodes, though surreal and meta. There’s no real narrative to follow (at least I didn’t catch it) and I got tired of it quickly.
I may need to re-read it though.
Real Women Have Bodies
This is another example of the theme of the stories and Machado’s talent. Something is afflicting women, and they grow incorporeal.
No one knows what causes it. It’s not passed in the air. It’s not sexually transmitted. It’s not a virus or a bacteria, or if it is, it’s nothing scientists have been able to find. At first everyone blamed the fashion industry, then the millennials, and, finally, the water. But the water’s been tested, the millennials aren’t the only ones going incorporeal, and it doesn’t do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away. You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.
The main character works in a dress shop and at the end of the story discovers something quite odd and frightening. The metaphor, as evidenced above is a bit on the nose but is really quite powerful and effective in Marchado’s hands. It is also necessary.
I feel like if more men would read this book they might “get” women’s world just that tiny bit better. I certainly feel like I did.
A woman unhappy with her body and her appetite gets some surgery done. Afterwards she feels a presence following her, and her sisters, who’ve also had the same operation assure her that it’s normal.
“Yes,” says my first sister. “My joy danced around my house, like a child, and I danced with her. We almost broke two vases that way!”
“Yes,” says my second sister. “My inner beauty was set free and lay around in patches of sunlight like a cat, preening itself.”
“Yes,” says my third sister. “My former shame slunk from shadow to shadow, as it should have. It will go away, after a while. You won’t even notice and then one day it’ll be gone”
That Carmen and her clever ways.
This is one of the longer stories in the book. A woman goes to an artist’s retreat, in a place she went to as a child.
The people at the resort, the other residents, are an odd assortment, and the story’s character falls into a sort of odd madness and meets her younger self, in a confused state.
The story never bores but never soars eithet, though it is an entertaining read. In many other collections this would be a standout story, but among the gems in this books it falls flat. But only by comparison.
Difficult at Parties
A woman comes home from hospital. Something happened to her, possibly rape, and she is having a hard time recovering.
She watches porn in an attempt to rekindle things with her boyfriend but the porn is odd and distant (even for porn) and there are voices below somehow, under.
Her boyfriend is trying what he can, doing what he thinks will help her, but the world is difficult to navigate. And what are the voices saying on the porn DVDs?
Overall, Her Body and Other Parties is fantastic. An amazing achievement. Peerless, brilliant, and it is amazing that this is a debut.
I can not recommend it enough.