I’m reluctant to admit this but it’s often easier for me to write about a book I hated rather than a book I loved. It’s less exhausting, it gives me an opportunity to say something sharp, if not mean; it certainly takes less time – you can dismiss something in one short, swift action. If I write about a book with affection I worry I’m, consciously or unconsciously, revealing something about myself – that I have good taste or bad taste, troubling obsessions, a sympathy towards those who are undeserving of it, that I’m insensitive or incapable of intellectual thought – and I have no interest in revealing anything about myself. But it’s difficult to write coldly, in the precise language of criticism, about a book that provokes a personal, emotional response. And Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, although admirably stylish and original, does prompt feeling above all else.
In these eight stories, all written from a female perspective, all invoking supernatural elements with obvious antecedents in Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson, Machado roams a landscape at once familiar and brutally weird. Here are girls: girls who have become mothers too soon and are doubtful of their abilities in ‘Mothers’; girls with dead-end jobs, and student loan debt, fighting against their limited options and wondering, at the same time, why they should bother in ‘Real Women Have Bodies’. And women: a wife in the suburban gothic, sexually charged ‘The Husband Stitch’; a mother with damaging body issues choosing to recourse to surgery in ‘Eight Bites’. In ‘The Resident’, so deeply indebted to Jackson that you can practically hear the windows of her Hill House rattle, a writer navigates her ‘dying profession’ in an isolated lake residency, while recalling adolescent trauma from that holy American tradition, the Girl Scouts. The settings are strange, if not lethal, but the women make immediate sense to me.
Thematically, there is an exploration of erotic desire, particularly queer desire, a wariness of home, or what takes place in the home, and a true understanding of the landscapes of the lost: motels, strip malls, parking lots, the plastic seats of cheap restaurants and loud, desperate parties. Each story, through what could be described as extended metaphor, is an implicit criticism of what women have been sold. In ‘Especially Heinous’, a novella-length reimagining of the police procedural TV series Law and Order SVU, Machado picks apart society’s appetite for the young female victim. Wildly, dangerously, Machado defamiliarises and exposes the tricks and tawdry allure of the cop show. In her monstrous creation, victims don’t just get their allotted, well-lit five minutes of distress and then discreetly disappear – they follow and haunt. It’s a furious story in which a prostitute dismisses her own life as insignificant, where nepotism is an open joke, where the city is always hungry. It reads as a condemnation of the justice system and the sycophantic entertainment industry that glorifies it, but it’s also a thrilling, unforgiving, recklessly alive piece of writing.
A distrust of media, and a refusal to accept slippery narratives, runs right through Machado’s fiction. In ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, a shop girl, with suspicions about the dresses she is selling, watches as girls literally disappear around her. In one scene she stares at a motel television with her girlfriend who is, by this time, also physically fading away as, ‘news pundits talk about how we can’t trust the faded women, women who can’t be touched but can stand on the earth which means they must be lying, they must be deceiving us somehow.’ Now, tell me if you have heard that anywhere else recently? For a book so concerned with destiny, the timing of Her Body and Other Parties seems oddly fated.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Machado spoke about how ‘non-realism can be a way to insist on something different for women.’ As I read this collection, reality interrupted. Sexual assault allegations were arising against powerful men and I was invested in the development of the news, somehow both unsurprised and horrified by the relentless regularity of the stories. I didn’t want to read, but I did. The details were cartoonishly pornographic – hotel rooms, seedy glamour, starlets. Here were real-life monsters, without the satisfying origin revelations and exact reasoning behind how they were made, and I was fascinated by them, and disgusted by my own fascination. In ‘Difficult at Parties’, Machado’s final story, the camera is to be feared, an invasive, disturbing object (‘in the corner, the single eye of the camera is fixed upon me’) that the narrator forces into the bedroom for a last grasp at closure.
Daily, in articles accompanied by ghostly party photographs – everyone happy, everyone smiling – the real lie of the camera was being made evident. Initially the truth was delivered by the voices of actresses – less women than apparitions, containers for our fantasies – then by all the voices thrumming underneath, millions of women saying, ‘I’m here too’, as if the skin was being ripped off the earth. As the narrator of ‘The Husband Stitch’ says as she repeats and destroys narratives about marriage and motherhood, ‘this may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.’
In her closing story, Machado, for me, captures what is at stake. It opens with an unnamed narrator, ‘whose body radiates pain, is dense with it’. It’s difficult to know what has happened to her; we can presume, from a later phone call, that she has been raped. To try and reconnect with her boyfriend she starts to watch pornography. As she views these bodies mechanically going through the motions, she realises she can hear what the taut, machine-like porn stars are thinking, can hear, ‘the voices underneath’. Like reverse pornography, Machado allows us into a room we shouldn’t necessarily be in, to witness scenes we shouldn’t necessarily be allowed to see. In doing so she shows us real horror: how a life disintegrates after sexual violence. The narrator’s boyfriend asks if she remembers what it was like before, but there is no before. Crying is allowed only in the dark, in her bedroom. She confronts again and again the blank, immovable feeling inside of herself. She is difficult at parties, and she is difficult everywhere else. You can dismiss a string of names but sit in her bedroom, even briefly, and you will be unable to dismiss her.
In real time, the cycle of women’s trauma played out in the media. It was accompanied by photographs eerie in their perfection, as if this was a fitting punishment for being too beautiful, for threatening to have it all. We were reminded daily, salaciously, of the effects of sexual assault. Why? Did they think it was possible we might forget? No, we know for many women there will only be good days, and occasionally, if they’re lucky, they might turn into good weeks, months, but that’s it. Machado’s voice makes no demands of you. She doesn’t want names, or a list of names, dates, places; to know what you were wearing, if they touched your knee, thigh, breasts, how it progressed. She doesn’t ask you to undress and describe the beginning, middle and sordid end. All she is saying is, in your most private, most terrible moments, in the complete darkness: It’s okay. You’re not the only one. I’m with you. These are stories that listen more than they speak, and it may be naive, sentimental, or even worryingly religious, of me to admit that I believe this to be absolutely worthwhile.
Short stories are a hard sell. I think people are suspicious of the brevity, as though short story writers are all sitting around, taking long lunches, drinking mimosas, generally being unserious. Recently, Anne Enright, writing in the London Review of Books, made an observation that interested me: ‘If you aren’t going to be heard, then you can say what you like.’ Machado, refusing victimhood, turns her relatively hidden position into a strength. She uses it as a form of protest, like her invisible girls in ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, to say that, although the world keeps coming up with new and interesting ways to convince us that some women are worth less, worth nothing, she knows better. Her formal invention, her wit and unpredictability are all highly persuasive. If you’re a woman you’re excluded from the majority of solemn literary conversations, and if you’re a short-story writer you’re excluded twice. So, Machado seems to be saying, if you’re on the street outside the party – looking a bit sloppy, wondering if someone might switch coats with you – then you may as well have a good time. Enjoy your total and unlimited freedom. You don’t get nearly enough of it.
I could end this review with a joke about how short stories are the perfect form for women because we’re already acclimatised to the conditions – they are undervalued, usually written out of history and badly paid – but it would be glib and I wouldn’t mean it. Something about Machado’s writing, or the past few months, has made me want to reach beyond my natural register of humorous defeat. Besides Machado deserves more, in honour of her own sublime endings. So, instead, I will point out how it took her five years to write this collection. That is a long time for a few stories. She must have felt like turning the car around, possibly abandoning the car, perhaps, in the worst times, burning out the car so it was untraceable by even the most dedicated law enforcement. In short, like the women she wrote this book about, wrote this book for, she must have sometimes felt like giving up. I would like to say, in a moment of unguardedness, that I’m grateful she did not.