In Other Words
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press, 245 pages
In “Real Women Have Bodies,” one of eight magnificent stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s National Book Award-nominated Her Body and Other Parties, women’s bodies gradually fade away. The women remain, incorporeal but present in ways that those who are still bodied do not always realize. “At first everyone blamed the fashion industry, then the millennials, and, finally, the water,” the narrator describes. Those causes for the bodies’ disappearances are all ruled out, the fashion industry because, “You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.”
The women may be bodiless, but they still find a way to make their presence known: There are rumors that they’re “getting themselves into electrical systems and f------ up servers and ATMs and voting machines,” the narrator’s girlfriend explains. “Protesting.”
These women who are real but don’t have bodies — and appear in this eerie, sad, funny story that announces in its title that real women have bodies — are some of the many female presences in Her
Body and Other Parties, a work that seems destined for a well-deserved place on feminist literature syllabi. The women are mothers, wives, lesbians, artists, victims, and Det. Olivia Benson of Law &
Order: SVU. Their corporeality is fundamental to how they survive the physical and psychic challenges of being, in a world in which there are plenty of both types. In one story, a woman catalogs her trysts against the background of an epidemic; in another, a woman cannot watch porn without hearing the actors’ inner thoughts.
Choices related to the body are subject to others’ commentary, and at times, their dangerous curiosity. A woman who decides to get bariatric surgery is condemned by her daughter, who accuses her of hating her own body and, by proxy, the daughter’s own similar one. (On the day of the surgery, after the protagonist tells her female doctor a story, the doctor taunts, “Don’t make me cut out your tongue” — voices, too, are susceptible to the tampering of others.) In “The Husband Stitch,” the green ribbon around the neck of the protagonist is the subject of her husband’s questioning. “A wife,” he says, “should have no secrets from her husband.” “I’m not hiding it,” she replies. “It just isn’t yours.”
The women’s bodies give them gratification, too: Sex is a source of pleasure and self-determination. Throughout the collection, Machado writes of romance and sex with specificity, blunting the language in a way that somehow makes it more ardent than the most excessive lyricism.
Within that crisp writing style are humor and sorrow and a seamless mashup of genres: from horror and fantasy to domestic drama. Literary tropes pop into the stories explicitly at times, as when a writer is questioned about her creation of a female character who may have a mental illness — “It’s sort of tiresome and regressive and, well,
done,” a woman identified as a “poet-composer” tells her. Stories surface from memories, handed down from mother to child or recalled with new terror in adulthood.
The story in the collection that most overtly plays with genre, in this case the television genre, is also its centerpiece work. In “Especially Heinous,” Machado provides episode synopses through 12 seasons of Law and Order: SVU, using the show’s actual episode titles but following them with dark, fantastical recaps. As Dets. Benson and Stabler (played on the show by Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni) try to solve brutal crimes, they encounter doppelgangers who are better at their jobs than they are, but probably evil. The Law and Order dum-dum beats inside Stabler; Benson “feels it in her teeth.” Rape and murder victims haunt Benson, communicating with bells where eyes should be. “Give us voices,” they tell her over and over. The story intersperses dark humor in a way that unsettles — to laugh amid the crimes described threatens complacency or complicity.
In an interview last month with the literary blog The Millions, Machado said, “My wife and I play this game where we’ll see something and I’ll lean over and suggest a fantastic alteration to it. For example, we’ll see a little kid playing with her reflection in a large window, and I’ll say to my wife, ‘What would happen if the reflection stopped following her?’ ” The world of Machado’s heroines starts out just a bit divergent from the one we recognize, revealing twists and contortions that still seem bizarre but real. Her comment gives a welcome insight into the creative workings of a remarkable mind. How would Machado shape what happens next? Her enticingly unpredictable prose makes any correct guesses improbable.