Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties

Reviewed by John Biscello

Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press, 264 pp., $16.00

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My body is a haunted
house that I am lost in.
There are no doors but there are knives
and a hundred windows.
–Jacui Germain

Imagine, now, an episode of Black Mirror, in which the female-body-as-haunted-house is the prime subject, a corporeal metaphor undergoing a cinematic vivisection. A symphonic series of camera angles, close-ups, rapid cuts and fade-outs commingle with bones-in-the-attic narrative and feminist bloodletting, Camille Paglia channeling Shirley Jackson, and we, the viewers, are riveted to the screen, to the exposed interior of a haunted house that seems never-ending in its shadowed corridors and passageways. The episode closes with an appropriately unsettling final scene, a cryptic air that slows time and promises an emotional hangover. You stare at the silent blackened void of the screen, waiting for music to play, for credits to roll, for something to happen. Finally, words appear in white block letters — Written by Carmen Maria Machado. This stirring episode hasn’t yet aired, because it hasn’t been written, but in a parallel realm where I get to play Netflix exec, Machado has been commissioned to contribute her unique and considerable talents to the Black Mirror universe.

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, a National Book Award Finalist, is a virtuoso feat of new wave gothic and totemic feminism. Machado explores the female anatomy, in thorny conjunction with its psyche, almost as an experimental slate upon which both dreams and nightmares are visited. We’re talking a Whitmanic sense of the body as an electric vessel, a high-voltage instrument producing music ranging from bluegrass ballads to ironic synth-pop to death metal.

The collection’s opener, “The Husband Stitch,” is a psychologically taut remix of the classic horror tale, “The Green Ribbon,” which details a husband’s obsession with the ribbon that his wife always wears around her neck, and the wife’s insistence on protecting the mystery that belongs to her and her alone. “Our son is twelve. He asks me about the ribbon, point-blank. I tell him that we are all different, and sometimes you should not ask questions. I assure him that he’ll understand when he is grown. I distract him with stories that have no ribbons: angels who desire to be human and ghosts who don’t realize they’re dead and children who turn to ash. He stops smelling like a child — milky-sweetness replaced with something sharp and burning, like a hair sizzling on the stove.” Interspersed throughout “The Husband Stitch” are parenthetical stage directions, which read like the instructional poem-nuggets of Yoko Ono: (“If you are reading this story out loud, make the sound of the bed under the tension of train travel and lovemaking by straining a metal folding chair against its hinges. When you are exhausted with that, sing the half-remembered lyrics of old songs to the person closest to you, thinking of lullabies for children.”).

“Inventory” comprises one woman’s systematic listing of intimate encounters, her self-prescribed way of maintaining equilibrium in a world that is rapidly being effaced by an apocalyptic virus. “One woman. Much older than me. While she waited for the three days to pass, she meditated on a sand dune. When I checked her eyes, I noticed they were as green as sea glass. Her hair grayed at the temples and the way she laughed tripped pleasure down the stairs of my heart. We sat in the half light of the bay window and the buildup was so slow. She straddled me, and when she kissed me the scene beyond the glass pinched and curved. We drank, and walked the length of the beach, the damp sand making pale halos around our feet.” . . .

To read the rest of Biscello’s review, go to Riot Material magazine:

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