I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled off to a sanatorium. I don’t know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly they take you away from the known world for wanting it?
Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories by Carmen Maria Machado. It is so hot right now. It’s gotten rave reviews from major critics all over the country, and it’s a National Book Award finalist. Here’s what you need to know before you jump on the bandwagon.
What kind of book is it?
It’s a collection of eight previously released short stories by Carmen Maria Machado. Its genre is kinda hard to pin down. I’ve seen it labeled a bunch of different ways: science fiction (there’s some dystopia in there), fantasy, literary fiction, horror, feminist, magical realism, surrealism, and weird fiction. I don’t think putting this book into a defined genre is very helpful for potential buyers, though. The stories experiment too much with form and style to really fit in anywhere.
What is it about?
The short stories are “about” different stuff – they are all independent of one another – but the overall theme is that women, especially queer women, deal with some scary crap: violation of bodily integrity, sudden violence from those they trust, society’s attitude towards sexual violence, judgment of body image, judgment of sexual desire and history. The stories in the book examine typically overlooked female anxieties and critique societal standards and mores. Sometimes at a subconscious level. What does that mean? It means the stories are weird.
Specifically, what are the short stories about?
The descriptions below don’t really do justice to how freaking “out-there” some of these stories are, but I tried to avoid spoilers to the greatest extent possible.
One of the finest short stories I’ve ever read and the highlight of this collection, “The Husband Stitch” is basically a retelling of The Green Ribbon by Alvin Schwartz from the female character’s point of view. In the course of this retelling, the author wittily incorporates and references other classic and modern urban legends. Or are they all urban legends? The story is dark, funny, and, ultimately, disturbing.
The narrator is making an inventory of her sexual history.
Beats me. I read it and still don’t have a solid grasp of it. I think a great deal of it takes place in the narrator’s head, and since she struggles with reality, so does the reader. Or something. I dunno.
The author took the real Law and Order: SVU episode titles and then wrote an alternative description for each episode to create a fantastical narrative involving ghosts, doppelgangers, and madness. Sexual violence and murder are not mundane in this version of SVU.
Real Women Have Bodies
A reaction/critique to Real Women Have Curves.
A woman gets gastric bypass surgery.
A woman goes to an artist retreat.
Difficult at Parties
A traumatized woman tries to recover.
Is the book good?
With the exception of “The Husband Stitch,” I didn’t like it. The author cleverly experiments with formal storytelling structure, but the stories themselves generally felt soulless, like they were just intellectual exercises. Sometimes they read more like ideas than fully fleshed-out narratives, where the author presented a central metaphor, said “Ta Da!” and that was it. I didn’t feel anything except occasional bafflement. Additionally, I don’t like reading episode descriptions of television shows that DO exist, so the format of “Especially Heinous” was a pretty miserable reading experience for me.
This is all, of course, a matter of personal taste. Machado clearly has a way with words. Most critics seem to enjoy the intellectual exercises and clear mastery of language shown by the author. I get the appeal; it’s just not for me. Other readers may find that they DO respond on an emotional level to the stories in this book. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying it out. I do want to warn potential purchasers with limited funds that it MIGHT not be to their taste, as it was not to mine. That’s why I provided links to most of the stories in the collection. Read a few. See if you dig it before you spend the big bucks.
How was it rated?
I rate short story collections based upon a kind of “subjective average” of the quality of all of the stories in the collection as a whole. In other words, the rating is how I felt about reading the entire collection. The absolute strength of “The Husband Stitch” brought up that overall average to a 3 star.
Rating: 3 stars