Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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 Resident

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

still from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit with Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay

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.

Other Stories

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.

Takeaway

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.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

My first Salman Rushdie novel. The fabulous writing has left
me in awe. The Enchantress of Florence is a book about storytelling and adventure and magic of the crude, unrestrained, undiluted kind; unlike
the magic you encounter in modern fantasy, this is wholly inexplicable.
A yellow-haired traveller shows up in Emperor Akbar’s court
in Fatehpur Sikri claiming to be the child of Akbar’s grandfather, Babar’s
exiled sister, Princess Qara Köz, Lady Black Eyes; known in Italy as
the Enchantress of Florence. As the traveller, who calls himself The Mughal of
Love, relates his mother’s tale, the narrative switches back and forth between
Akbar’s court in Hindustan and Renaissance Florence.
Rushdie takes characters out of history and blends them almost perfectly with the fiction he has created; Tansen in Sikri and Niccolo Machiavelli in Italy, among others; giving even the greats only as much attention as the story allows.
Despite being a bit rushed at times and slightly dull at others; despite bordering, sometimes, on pretentious; many stories in this book have left a huge impression on me.
The tale of Jodha, the aloof Queen that Akbar brought into existence through sheer passion; that of the painter who, quite literally, lost himself in
his artwork; the story of the Memory Palace, a woman, a vessel, whose
mind was erased to make room  for someone else’s story. I have always been fascinated by the Mughal history of India and having grown up on tales of Birbal and his antics in Akbar’s court, the book has brought back the fondest memories of my childhood. Akbar is just as I would have imagined him. Rushdie brings Sikri to life, right from the first scene, from the splendid descriptions of the shimmering golden waters of the palace lake. Florence, though, I am not so sure about. It may be because I have never been there, but the city isn’t quite as vivid. The journeys of Argalia, the story of the three friends from Florence, and of the lives of Qara Köz and her servant, however, are intriguing. 
Here are some of my favourite quotes (no spoilers) from the book:
~ ‘Imagine a pair of woman’s lips,’ Mogor whispered, ‘puckering for a kiss. That is the city of Florence, narrow at the edges, swelling at the centre, with the Arno flowing through between, parting the two lips, the upper and the lower. The city is an enchantress. When it kisses you, you are lost, whether you be commoner or king.’
~ ‘We find that we enjoy him and do not care, for the present, to unravel his mysteries. Maybe he has been a criminal, maybe even a murderer, we cannot say. What we know is that he has crossed the world to leave one story behind and to tell another, that the story he has brought us is his only baggage, and that his deepest desire is the same as poor vanished Dashwanth’s – that is, he wants to step into the tale he’s telling and begin a new life inside it. In short, he is a creator of fables, and a good afsanah never did anybody any real damage.’
~ Is it not a kind of infantilization of the self to give up one’s power of agency and believe that such power resided outside oneself rather than within? This was also his objection to God, that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves. But magic was all around and would not be denied, and it would be a rash ruler who pooh-poohed it. Religion could be re-thought, re-examined, remade, perhaps even discarded; magic was impervious to such assaults.

Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wand. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.

Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A. S. Byatt

I think the beauty of a well-written short story, is that
you can experience everything that a novel has to offer and experience it in a
really short time. I appreciate the sense of fulfillment, as E. A. Poe put
it, which you get from reading a tale in a single sitting.
When I picked up that little yellow book at the library, I
had never even heard of this fantastic author. The pages looked and smelled
rich and the book was small enough to fit into my tiny purse. I had already
found the book I was looking for, and this one, I picked without giving it a
thought. I had no idea what kind of surprise I was in for. The book is
beautiful and I was fascinated right from the first tale, I read the collection in
not more than a couple of hours.
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A. S. Byatt consists
of six enchanting stories about passion and loneliness and love and hate, each of which transports you into a new world altogether. 
The first story, and one of my favourites, in this fabulous
collection is called Crocodile Tears. It is about a woman who
escapes the pain of her husband’s death by running off to some place, only to
meet another person there, who is just as lost as her. It is abrupt and on the
outside, strange, but underneath it is just a compelling combination of inner
violence and outward detachment. 
The story Cold is a Grimm-sical dark fairy
tale, about how love changes you. It is the story of Princess Fiammarosa, the
supposed descendant of an icewoman, who can only survive the heat of the day by
dancing outside on the wintry cool nights. 
There is also a surreal and comical story about a
woman who loses herself in a shopping mall and that about an artist who finds
inspiration in a beautiful monstrous snake-like creature.
A. S. Byatt is a wordsmith. She weaves together wonderful
words and beautiful sounds to create a magical, poetic language which, together
with the feelings that the stories invoke in you, leaves you enraptured. It
is also a wonderful introduction to the author, before picking up her bigger
works. If you like fantasy, art or magical realism, it is a must read!