November 30, 2017 | Arts and Culture
Odd Girl Out
Reviewing Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties
Carmen Maria Machado wants you to believe in ghosts. In her masterful debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, they lurk in the aisles of stores selling prom dresses or in the dreams of a detective who sometimes appears on primetime TV. Most often, these ghosts haunt the minds of her characters. Machado has packed her pages with madwomen in the attic, but this time, they’ve built the attic for themselves.
A finalist for the 2017 National Book Awards, Her Body and Other Parties is unsettling, uncanny, and utterly spellbinding. The collection comprises seven stories and one novella (a reimagining of 272 episodes of Law and Order: SVU, which spins a progressively weird web from the real synopses and includes eerily perfect doppelgangers, fridges filled with rotten vegetables, and girls with bells for eyes). Each story offers a self-contained universe that hovers between reality and science fiction, pushing the limits of genre to such an extreme that even her most fantastical narratives can’t help but circle back to some aspect of our own reality. A wife charts her adolescence, marriage, and suburban motherhood, yet the ribbon around her neck is the only thing holding her in place. A woman watches porn with her boyfriend, until she realizes she can hear the actors’ thoughts through the screen. These are not simple fairy tales, though they definitely take some inspiration from the history of feminist retellings á la Angela Carter. Rather, they are reflective of what it is to be a woman in the modern world, to be simultaneously imprisoned and liberated by one’s own body and by one’s own brain.
In a superb social satire dreamscape, “The Resident,” the narrator (whose initials are incidentally CM), attends a remote artists’ colony. She moves through the weeks in a haze, sometimes a literal fever-dream, other times in the odd real/not-real space of her own head as she tries to finish a novel, all the while trying to make sense of the manufactured party personas of her “poet-composer” peers. The story is provocative, intensely physical (abscesses of unknown origin crumple “chamber by chamber, like a temple from which an adventurer is feverishly tearing”) and psychologically unnerving. After weeks in this bubble, CM cracks, gathers her belongings, and decides to leave immediately. Before she goes, she scrawls her initials above her desk, accompanied by the epithet “madwoman in her own attic.” If Machado’s women are indeed crazy, they are also undeniably in control, begging the question of whether the world outside is scarier than the one within.
If Machado writes good characters, she writes even better sentences. Each one is a shock wave, and when combined with the others, they form a web of words that buzzes with electricity. Sometimes they are descriptive: a baby’s head is “like the soft spot on a peach that you can just plunge your thumb into, no questions asked.” Sometimes they are sensitive: sex that makes the narrator feel “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall.” Sometimes they are directive: “If you are reading this story aloud, force a listener to reveal a devastating secret, then open the nearest window to the street and scream it as loudly as you are able.” But Machado’s writing is visceral, bordering on the grotesque and the glorious at the same time, and always circling back to the body. These words are lived-in, these ideas terribly, terrifically human. Machado’s stories have a heartbeat, and it’s up to us to decide whether it pumps in the head or the chest.