The other day, I finished reading a book called Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, a study in sexuality, romance, abuse, and identity. It is a short story collection with well-crafted stories that fall somewhere in the realm of gothic fiction, psychological horror, dark fantasy, magical realism, and weird fiction. Go figure, right? I found myself drawing comparisons to the writings of Angela Carter. For weeks now, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this book.
The book is intensely imaginative and plays with form and structure to a fault. As I read, I felt like I was trying to force-fit explanations onto the different narratives in the book, to consciously make meaning. Is that how anyone reads magical realism? Or am I so dull and obtuse that I need this process? What questions do you ask to tease out the meaning in a dense, perhaps inaccessible, text? Is there a toolkit for this genre that will make me a better reader? Would love to hear your thoughts. Meanwhile, here’s what I thought about some of the stories in the book.
Real Women Have Bodies
In this story, Machado tackles the use of body positivity as a handy marketing technique and the notion of selling clothes for “real bodies.” In this fantastical story, there is a new epidemic on the block. Women are fading away. Literally, turning translucent, and then, transparent. Not dying, just becoming incorporeal. Machado asks us, how would fashion respond to this crisis? Will the fashion industry survive when women have no bodies? But wait, doesn’t fashion thrive on existential crises?
The main character is a salesgirl at a clothing boutique, who falls in love with a fading woman. It is through her eyes that we uncover the underbelly of the fashion world. What happens to the fading women, their minds, their identities? Their fate seems to tell us that we are what we wear, style and fashion make us relevant, our bodies make us real. What is a woman without a body? What is a woman?
The narrator goes to an artists’ retreat at Devil’s Throat, which is the site where she’d suffered a childhood trauma, a place in the mountains where she’d once visited as a Girl Scout. In the present day, in the form of a surreal half-fantasy, she finds herself revisiting her past and reliving it, facing it and learning about herself in an effort to slowly come to terms with her mind.
Machado has dissected the gothic trope of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ – think Jane Eyre or Rebecca. She asks, what’s worse: being locked outside of your mind or locked inside it? What is worse: writing a trope or being one? What about being more than one? The narrator undertakes a bold journey into the deep recesses of her mind, commands your respect. Machado allows the madwoman in the attic to assert her identity, to revel in it, and her self-reclamation is cathartic.
Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU
Now, to start off, I haven’t watched Law & Order, but I have watched my share of detective / police procedural series that go on and on for decades. Machado has written this story in the form of episode synopses across 12 seasons on Law & Order, borrowing the characters Stabler and Benson from the series. What we get is an over-arching love story between the detective partners as they solve the grizzliest crime cases, mostly comprising of violence against women.
And that’s how most of these crime dramas are, aren’t they? Gruesome violence packaged as entertainment. Every new episode showcases new depravity, and you’re supposed to quickly rejoice when they find the rapist or the killer. And then you move on the bar scene when they bond over their drinks, and that’s what you care the most about; the tension between the detectives, their family troubles, these well-worn narratives that get increasingly convoluted with every new season. All on the backdrop of what should have been the real focus, i.e., the crimes themselves.
Every once in a while, they give you an episode that truly makes you think, and cringe, and seriously consider these pertinent social and psychological issues. But those episodes are rare, and they’re not the hot topic when the newest episode comes out, and you wonder, for the umpteenth time, just when Booth will finally kiss Bones or Lucifer will confess his love for Chloe.
Machado mimics that detective-partners’ chemistry arch in her story, creating the most cloying and tangled romance. She makes you shudder and wonder why you’d ever watch something so glib. Meanwhile, her characters are haunted by the true nature of their jobs; something that most TV shows would hesitate to show us.
This is a collection of eight powerful stories, I’ve only found space to talk about three. I’m still chewing on all of them. There is a story about eating disorders and body image called Eight Bites, inspired by the advice that it takes eight bites to get a sense of what you’re eating, and that’s enough. A story that hits too close to home! The first story, The Husband Stitch is one of the best stories I have ever read, but I can’t bring myself to write about it. Instead, I share this Electric Lit article shared by a friend that prompted me to buy this book in the first place.
Overall, there are several layers to peel back when reading this book. The experience has made me intensely aware of being a woman, not something I’m used to thinking over. I felt seen and heard, guilty, unabashed, and emotionally satisfied. Those seem like just hollow labels and for now, that’s all they’ll remain.
Machado’s writing demands that I take many steps forward for every step that she took. I am not yet ready to go to some of the places where she tried to lead me. I may return to the book, someday, and allow myself to be carried down those uncharted passages of my mind. Not something to look forward to.