on her body and other parties

A debut collection of eight surreal stories, Her Body and Other Parties examines the emotional toll of gendered violence upon female interiority.

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All eight tales of author Carmen Maria Machado’s debut take place against terrifying backdrops—a global plague, the apocalypse, a monstrous shopping mall—and they incorporate elements of the fantastical, from vanishing bodies to otherworldly vistas. A foreboding atmosphere pervades the collection and shrouds it with a strong sense of mystery; despite their fabulist bent, the stories are a far cry from clear-cut allegory, with most ending on notes of suspense and ambiguity.

The best of the stories give voice to the frustrations and longings of marginalized women as they navigate a society obsessed with controlling their bodies. “The Husband Stitch” is a feminist retelling of “The Green Ribbon,” in which a soft-spoken wife struggles to maintain bodily and sexual autonomy over the course of her marriage, while “Eight Bites” centers on the horrific aftermath of a mother’s decision to undergo bariatric surgery. Pieces like these movingly render the inner lives of queer, fat, and brown women, framing everyday problems in terms of the supernatural.

The weakest tales prize experiments in form over compelling storytelling. The worst, “Especially Heinous,” offers alternately snarky and damning commentary on twelve seasons’ worth of episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Paragraph by paragraph, the writing’s solid, but it becomes repetitive and tedious. Like others of its kind, the story comes across as either gimmicky or filler material included to bulk up the collection.

Recalling Roxane Gay, Machado writes sharp prose that moves at a brisk pace, and her work at its strongest defies genre. With a painful level of precision, the author charts the fulfilled and unfulfilled desires of the unnamed protagonist of “The Husband Stitch” over the course of her lifetime, bringing the tale close to literary fiction, but she also embeds lurid urban legends into the spare main narrative, which itself is based on a children’s horror story. The strange mix of genres makes for a novel, unsettling reading experience.

Although uneven, Her Body and Other Parties signals the start of a promising career. Machado has a knack for stirring up vivid emotions with few words, and her upcoming memoir In the Dream House seems well worth checking out.

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5 thoughts on “on her body and other parties

  1. The interesting thing to me about this author is the way she seems to toe the line of conventional vs. experimental fiction. I think I’ve mentioned before that for ages I read experimental fiction because that’s what the professors in my creative writing program wanted us to read, and I slowly felt like I liked it. But I later realized I was exhausted with people fighting against storytelling in exchange for a work so confusing that only he/she understands it. What is the point of seeking publication for such a work? I started to see those authors as selfish, as if readers who didn’t like their experimental garbled messes were somehow “stupid” instead of discerning.

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    1. She really does toe the line in an interesting way – her experimental pieces usually have a central character and some sort of plot, and her conventional stories still feel surreal. I’m not sure what to make of the style: I can’t tell if it’s a deliberate choice or just the work of someone who’s still finding their voice as a writer.

      I definitely can empathize with your frustration. The only thing I can think of is that these writers are hoping readers will find their stories’ gimmicks daring and interesting (/un-gimmicky), and be impressed by how clever they are. It’s easier to create something confusing and market it as deep than it is to write something accessible but compelling. I find that the problem’s even worse when it comes to poetry.

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      1. The only way I can ingest most poetry these days is to go to a reading. The poet inevitable explains what inspired the poem and what it’s about before he/she reads it. Of course, the poem then makes sense.

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  2. I have this on my shelves and have been a little nervous to pick it up for free of dark/violent/horrifying content, but I’ve also heard great things about and think the topic is really worth reading about. I actually just finished Roar, a collection of feminist essays by Cecelia Ahern, and they felt so light and simple and so on the nose with their metaphors, it made me want to pick up this or Gay’s Difficult Women in hopes of a more serious, complex version of the same thing. So, your review comes at a good time! I may gather my courage and pick this one up soon 🙂

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  3. And how have I made it this far in life without that Green Ribbon story in my reading experience. Sheesh.

    I’ve only read one of her stories (too long ago to recall which, obviously not the retelling of the Ribbon story) and I scribbled it under the heading of gimmicky and moved along, but you’re making me reconsider.

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