Something is happening to women’s bodies.
In Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” women evaporate, are haunted after gastric surgery, literally lose their heads and chart an apocalyptic pandemic through their sexual encounters. Their every experience is expressed through the body, in ways both natural and supernatural but always, on the deepest level, true.
The collection is that hallowed thing: an example of almost preposterous talent that also encapsulates something vital but previously diffuse about the moment — no doubt why Machado has been longlisted for the National Book Award and named a finalist for the $50,000 Kirkus Prize for her debut. This is bodily fiction, written for and within a culture that’s rediscovering the body: through today’s feminism, with its new frankness about women’s bodies (as when legions of women called Mike Pence to tell him about their periods) and through the broader cultural shift toward valuing the experience of the body in the moment.
That shift has already been articulated in literature this year, though nowhere as pointedly as in Machado’s stories. Narrator Christine burns a story of rebellion into her skin, turning her body into a site of resistance, in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Book of Joan.” In Catherine Lacey’s “The Answers,” protagonist Mary suffers bizarre physical symptoms that can be cured only by a form of holistic bodily manipulation, and Amelia Gray’s “Isadora” is a fictional biography of the dancer who wished to awaken the world through her body. In Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” published in English translation in 2016, a woman stops eating meat and is subjected to a series of violations.
This, well, body of bodily work by women — with Machado’s stories in pride of place — expresses nothing short of a realignment of consciousness. The movement is both a triumphant, feminist reclamation of the flesh and a new assertion of the body as the origin of experience and meaning.
It’s a triumphant reclamation, yes — but things still happen to these bodies that are unwanted, stolen, violent. In Machado’s stories, reclaiming the female body doesn’t mean ignoring the damage so often done to it but rather subverting the narrative that allows this damage to define the body.
The collection’s longest story, “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” is a glorious example of such narrative subversion. Structured around the first 12 seasons of “Law & Order: SVU,” it takes the show’s main characters, episode names and series format to twist an entirely new tale in which the detectives are driven to the brink, haunted by their own doppelgangers and by the multiplying ghosts of raped and murdered girls. “Give us voices. Give us voices. Give us voices,” the ghosts chime at Det. Benson as she cowers under a pillow. Machado recasts “Law & Order: SVU”: from titillation at sexual trauma to a story about the way sexual violence sickens a culture, in which victims and survivors are not ephemeral plot devices but agents, central, ever-present.
Machado is a master of such pointed formal play, of queering genre and the supposed laws of reality to present alternative possibilities. The collection’s opening story, “The Husband Stitch,” retells the old ghost story of the woman with the ribbon around her neck, whose husband’s lifelong curiosity about the ribbon is satisfied when, finally, she permits him to untie it and her head rolls to the floor, outing her as undead all along. In Machado’s imagining, the ribbon isn’t a zombie’s trick but a condition of womanhood: “It’s such a bother, isn’t it?” another woman says of her ribbon, swearing and crying. The narrator is a parody of heteronormative perfection: sexually compliant, domestically dutiful. The ribbon is her only secret, and she’s killed by her husband’s refusal to let her keep it. It’s a horror story in which the monster is heterosexual relationship — a dynamic that holds in several of these stories.
Meanwhile, Machado’s women often love women easily and well. The collection doesn’t just reframe pain, it also contains the joys of the body. Machado writes erotica under the pen name Olivia Glass; her stories are shot through with sexual pleasure, which her characters experience hungrily, “like [they’ve] been waiting for permission.” In a sense, Machado herself grants that permission, or rather shows that it was never needed. “Where are the women writing and publishing novels and stories that are full of explicit sex that aren’t being marketed as erotica or woman’s fiction or romance?” Machado asked in a 2015 interview with Electric Literature. In “Her Body and Other Parties,” Machado sings it: women (in fiction, in the world) are free to enjoy full sexual lives.
“Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic story?” asks a self-satisfied, female “poet-composer” in “The Resident,” a story set at a writing residency. The question-insult comes immediately after a reading of the protagonist’s work. “You know. That old trope. … It’s sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done. … And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well?”
Which versions of womanhood are women allowed to write? Is there a duty to write only stories of self-possession? “Everything is crazy to you,” the story’s protagonist replies. “By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.” In “Her Body and Other Parties,” Machado reveals just how original, subversive, proud and joyful it can be to write from deep in the gut, even — especially — if the gut has been bruised.
Robins is a writer and translator who lives in Los Angeles.
Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press: 248 pp., $16 paper