Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I’ll begin by saying what I want: a world where we can all recognize that women are the true and most honorable proprietors of horror writing.
I’ll begin this way because I think Carmen Maria Machado proves it. In order for horror to be truly horrifying, it has to be earned. It has to dig into the sensitive skin under our fingernails, on our bellies, the places where we store our most reasonable and our most plausible fears. The ones that, when touched, send out a sharp alarm in our brains, and we realize we’ve been waiting for this moment to come.
Machado reminds us in her debut collection that horror is the vessel for our violence, our selfishness, our monstrous qualities, our lack of empathy – and that those qualities exist in all of us, in varying measure. Machado writes into this political moment, in particular, where we are reminded every day that even our own bodies (or for many of us, especially our own bodies) are not safe territory. But she writes, also, into horrifying realms that have troubled us for centuries – into motherhood, memory, loss of love, loss of self, secrecy, ghosts, and the draining, day-to-day reality of living in a female body. The result is a cheeky, utterly contemporary take on not only what scares us now, but on what should scare us. It is at once entirely personal and entirely political.
One of the most strikingly relevant moments for me came in Machado’s first story, “The Husband Stitch,” where she retells the classic campfire tale about a woman who hides her severed head by securing it to her neck with a ribbon. She writes in the final moments, when her husband plays with the strings of the bow she has asked him never to touch:
“Resolve runs out of me. I touch the ribbon. I look at the face of my husband, the beginning and end of his desires all etched there. He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet –” (30)
It is hard not to see this overstepping of boundaries alongside the nearly endless number of accusations of sexual harassment that came after the global storm of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign. But Machado adds something that I think global movements like this often lack – that is, the nuance of personality, of what it means to be good and to be bad. It is easier, after all, to condemn one man than to say that every man is the product of centuries of social and political norms which teach us that women don’t deserve to have boundaries in the face of male desire. It is easier to say that one man is evil, or twelve or twenty or fifty men are evil, and to give those men names and faces. But it is more horrifying to say that even good, faceless, nameless men – even husbands, even fathers, even grandfathers and uncles and brothers – will take without asking. That even the men you love will ask too much, and by asking will whittle away the boundary that was so difficult to build in the first place. And they will do it without realizing they are dismantling anything. They will do it because they have been taught that women’s boundaries are malleable. Machado reminds us of that here, as the ribbon and the head and the person-hood of the narrator rolls to the corner of the room.
And there are other horrors, too. The fatty, faceless remains of a body altered by bariatric surgery. Invisible girls hidden in the seams of prom dresses. The surreal interplay of memory and self during a feverish writing residency. But there is beauty, too. Machado begins “Eight Bites” with the beautiful and surreal recollection of a body under anesthesia:
“As they put me to sleep, my mouth fills with the dust of the moon. I expect to choke on the silt but instead it slides in and out, and in and out, and I am, impossibly, breathing.
I have dreamt of inhaling underneath water and this is what it feels like: panic, and then acceptance, and then elation. I am going to die, I am not dying, I am doing a thing I never thought I could do.” (149)
My favorite of these stories was “Inventory,” in which a woman makes note of each of her sexual encounters as the world is consumed by plague. “One woman.” “One man.” “Two boys, one girl.” The horrors are there, in the corners of her partners’ yellowing eyes, but the coupling is the primary focus of the story. Machado writes most beautifully about loneliness here, and about the ways that we can continue to live despite the disasters on our doorsteps. Ultimately, this is what I appreciated most about Machado’s stories – they were about survival as much as they were about the horrors of being a woman in the world. These survivals are often small, rarely triumphant. But I love them because they are honest, and hard won. They show survival as a process, rather than a fist raised after villain has been slain. There are, in fact, few villains in these stories. The protagonists are forced to find other ways to prove their strength.
Her Body and Other Parties is an eerie, gross, surreal pleasure. It brings nuance to stories that are often washed out by broader political narratives. It is a playful book, which takes all subjects as fodder and turns them around so that we see the most frightening parts of ourselves, beautifully, reflected.