Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press, 264 pp., $16.00
Imagine, now, an episode of Black Mirror, in which the female-body-as-haunted-house is the prime subject, a corporeal metaphor undergoing a cinematic vivisection. A symphonic series of camera angles, close-ups, rapid cuts and fade-outs commingle with bones-in-the-attic narrative and feminist bloodletting, Camille Paglia channeling Shirley Jackson, and we, the viewers, are riveted to the screen, to the exposed interior of a haunted house that seems never-ending in its shadowed corridors and passageways. The episode closes with an appropriately unsettling final scene, a cryptic air that slows time and promises an emotional hangover. You stare at the silent blackened void of the screen, waiting for music to play, for credits to roll, for something to happen. Finally, words appear in white block letters — Written by Carmen Maria Machado. This stirring episode hasn’t yet aired, because it hasn’t been written, but in a parallel realm where I get to play Netflix exec, Machado has been commissioned to contribute her unique and considerable talents to the Black Mirror universe.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, a National Book Award Finalist, is a virtuoso feat of new wave gothic and totemic feminism. Machado explores the female anatomy, in thorny conjunction with its psyche, almost as an experimental slate upon which both dreams and nightmares are visited. We’re talking a Whitmanic sense of the body as an electric vessel, a high-voltage instrument producing music ranging from bluegrass ballads to ironic synth-pop to death metal.
The collection’s opener, “The Husband Stitch,” is a psychologically taut remix of the classic horror tale, “The Green Ribbon,” which details a husband’s obsession with the ribbon that his wife always wears around her neck, and the wife’s insistence on protecting the mystery that belongs to her and her alone. “Our son is twelve. He asks me about the ribbon, point-blank. I tell him that we are all different, and sometimes you should not ask questions. I assure him that he’ll understand when he is grown. I distract him with stories that have no ribbons: angels who desire to be human and ghosts who don’t realize they’re dead and children who turn to ash. He stops smelling like a child — milky-sweetness replaced with something sharp and burning, like a hair sizzling on the stove.” Interspersed throughout “The Husband Stitch” are parenthetical stage directions, which read like the instructional poem-nuggets of Yoko Ono: (“If you are reading this story out loud, make the sound of the bed under the tension of train travel and lovemaking by straining a metal folding chair against its hinges. When you are exhausted with that, sing the half-remembered lyrics of old songs to the person closest to you, thinking of lullabies for children.”).
“Inventory” comprises one woman’s systematic listing of intimate encounters, her self-prescribed way of maintaining equilibrium in a world that is rapidly being effaced by an apocalyptic virus. “One woman. Much older than me. While she waited for the three days to pass, she meditated on a sand dune. When I checked her eyes, I noticed they were as green as sea glass. Her hair grayed at the temples and the way she laughed tripped pleasure down the stairs of my heart. We sat in the half light of the bay window and the buildup was so slow. She straddled me, and when she kissed me the scene beyond the glass pinched and curved. We drank, and walked the length of the beach, the damp sand making pale halos around our feet.”
And this is where the genius, the holy seethe and tender bravery of Machado’s writing resides: in that tenuous place where absence meets form, where loss doubles down on love.”
In “Mothers,” a radically immaculate conception takes place between two women: “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 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.”
“Especially Heinous” reconceives Law & Order: SVU as an epigrammatic series of nightmares, urban postcards from a surrealist edge. “VULNERABLE: For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No rape-murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.”
“Real Women Have Bodies” is a dystopic gem, deserving of widespread anthologizing. In this story, women, prey to an epidemic of dematerialization, have begun to fade: “No one knows what causes it. It’s not passed in the air. It’s not sexually transmitted. It’s not a virus or 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.”
This glaring incorporeality juxtaposes sharply against the physical, sensual world: “She takes off the necklace and sets it down on the nightstand, the chain slithering like sand. When she sits up again, the ceiling fan frames her head like a glowing halo, like she’s a Madonna in a medieval painting. There is a mirror on the opposite side of the room, and I catch fragments of her reflection . . . She puts her hand over my mouth and bites my neck and slips three fingers into me. I laugh-gasp against her palm.
I come fast and hard, like a bottle breaking against a brick wall. Like I’ve been waiting for permission.”
And this is where the genius, the holy seethe and tender bravery of Machado’s writing resides: in that tenuous place where absence meets form, where loss doubles down on love. In singing the bones and scars, in guiding visitors through a “haunted house” with a torchlight in hand, she has done her part, and masterfully so, in bringing lyrical light to a necessary exorcism. Or, in the words of one of her protagonists, ““I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.”
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. His latest novel, Nocturne Variations, will be published by Unsolicited Press. To see more of John Biscello’s work, visit johnbiscello.com