As the title of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection suggests, the stories in Her Body and Other Parties are about women’s lives and bodies, which means that, above all, men must read them.
The blurbs on the book are numerous and rightfully ecstatic from writers of no small repute, and it’s a good sign that half of the jacket endorsements come from male writers. Not that their opinions matter more than the notable women who also praised the book. Except that in a sexist world, they often do, and we live in a sexist world — and sexism engenders sexual assault, body shaming, and silencing of women.
These are among the harms Machado exposes in these artfully structured stories, in language that is often bizarrely beautiful. It’s a vibrant collection that presents women in their vulnerabilities and strengths in relationships with men, in relationships with other women, and in reflection upon their own bodies as they sort through the social conventions that have long stifled their full expression of self.
The beauty and brilliance of these stories is the inventiveness of form and language. The first story in the collection, “The Husband Stitch,” exquisitely sets the stage. It signals that this book intends to offer out-of-the-ordinary constructions. It also intimates a reality that endangers women and makes them suspect in the world — that women are not to be believed (or trusted). It’s an unfounded reality that Machado’s narrator pushes back on as she knowingly asserts “ . . . there are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes.”
“The Husband Stitch” interlaces multiple urban myths with one in particular at its foundation: the story about the woman who wears a ribbon around her neck and instructs her husband to never remove it. Those familiar with this urban myth will guess the ending of the story and how it frames the woman as deceiver. But the “Husband Stitch” is more than myth. It is a full-bodied story that examines story itself and how women are portrayed in narratives that have morals or warnings regarding their behavior, desires, and abilities.
In one of these myths, there are three lessons. “Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make. Pride is the second. Being right is the third and worst mistake.” In other words, shut up and don’t make waves. Sacrifice your intellect to save someone else’s sense of importance. Sometimes the very circumstances of womanhood conspire to doom her: “Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.”
Stories are omnipresent and inescapable. Ready to give birth, the narrator of “The Husband Stitch” enumerates the tales rampant about women and childbirth — about a woman who goes into labor when the physician is tired, about a woman whose body clung to her child, about a woman who birthed wolf cubs. “Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond,” she says. “Once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.”
For all the little stories it contains about women, “The Husband Stitch” is about a man’s pleasure that ultimately prevails over a woman’s existence, about a man’s need to assert his wants or merely satisfy his curiosity about the reason for the ribbon at his wife’s neck. The narrator concedes,” He is not a bad man and that, I realize, is the root of my hurt.” He’s not bad, just a bit self-absorbed and not alert enough to the full personhood of his wife.
This failure to acknowledge women as full human beings has its consequences — as other stories in the collection show. Sometimes women fade away and inhabit inanimate objects,as they do in “Real Women Have Bodies.” One young woman on the verge of fading away contemplates her future existence. “It turns out that they think that the faded women are doing this sort of — I don’t know, I guess you’d call it terrorism? They’re getting into electrical systems and fucking up servers and ATMs and voting machines. Protesting. I like that.”
Sometimes women abandon parts of themselves. In “Eight Bites,” the protagonist decides to follow her sisters in getting bariatric surgery to make her fat disappear. She doesn’t name her sisters, just numbers them one, two, and three, as if there is nothing to differentiate them after their common surgeries.
In the operating room, just before she goes under, she recommends the doctor read the story of Ping, the duck who met some fishing birds with metal bands around their necks that kept them from swallowing the fish they caught. The birds were rewarded by the fishermen with tiny pieces that could pass through their constricted necks. “Don’t make me cut out your tongue,” responds the doctor (a woman, because women are not always on the same side), who then proceeds to cut out a chunk of the narrator’s stomach.
What happens to those parts of women that disappear from their bodies after the surgery? They remain a presence, immortal and inscrutable of form, haunting the women forever, a reminder of their abandonment.
While Machado plays with form — scaffolding a story on a collection of urban myths (“The Husband Stitch”), cataloging of sexual and love encounters as a means of measuring the progress of a virus that is decimating the country (“Inventory”), replotting five seasons of Law and Order episodes (“Especially Heinous”), she slays with language.
She describes two bodies “tangled up together like coat hangers.”
A young woman says of her ailing lover, “I can see that her skin is more like skim milk than whole.”
Another observes that “ . . . my joints feel like the fat rubber bands used to bind broccoli.”
Images that paint the grotesqueness visited upon women’s bodies cut to the core. “Blood streams down her arm like maypole ribbons,” she writes.
Even when her subjects are not human, the depiction of the vulnerable and unformed shrieking for relief hit close to home. “In the tangle of branches, baby birds — gray and pink of half-cooked shrimp and with bones like dried spaghetti — scream for their mothers.”
Her descriptions of the natural world are part horror story, part fairy tale and startlingly precise:
Cicada-killing wasps catch the weakest and stab them motionless, hauling the weight of their bodies and their glass wings up and up and somewhere else. Fireflies drunkenly dazzle the dark. The leaves are full, dark green, the trees dense and folded in on themselves, catching secrets, and only the violent tear of thunder and the bleach-burn of lightning can pull the grove apart.
Such gems appear on nearly every page. Here is one of my favorite passages. It is visceral and of the heart and brain all at once. Primal, intuitive, and discerning. There is a violence in both the words and their sounds. There is also beauty.
After I hang up with her, I try to take a grapefruit apart with my hands, but it’s an impossible task. The skin clings to the fruit, and between them is an intermediary skin, thick and impossible to separate from the meat. Eventually, I take a knife and lop off domes of rinds and cut the grapefruit into a cube before ripping it open with my fingers. It feels like I am dismantling a human heart. The fruit is delicious, slick. I swallow eight times, and when the ninth bite touches my lips I pull back and squish it in my hand as if I am crumpling an old receipt. I cut the remaining half of the grapefruit in a Tupperware. I close the fridge. Even now I can hear it. Behind me. Above me. Too large to perceive. Too small to see.
Bennett Sims, a writer known for his innovative fiction, says this about Her Body and Other Parties: “Yet for all its wildly inventive variety, Her Body and Other Parties is unified by one story it keeps finding new ways to tell: how women can survive in worlds that want them to disappear, whether into marriage, motherhood, death, or (literally) prom dresses.”
Survival is something that women know and will readily recognize in these stories.
Too often books by and about women are perceived as less than those by men. It’s long past time to get over that. But if men need encouragement from a man to read these stories about women, let them heed Kevin Brockmeier, who says, “Carmen Maria Machado is the way forward.” Machado’s suppleness with language, the precise, yet surprising, trajectory of her stories, and the truthfulness of her fiction will lead readers to expect more from all of us who write.