Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection of short stories, “Her Body and Other Parties,” oscillates between the horrifying and humorous, the fantastical and psychologically troubling, the uncanny and original. All eight stories feature women on the verge of becoming “madwomen in the attic,” challenging genre archetypes and traditional notions of femininity with inspiration from fairy tales, fables, eroticism, urban legend and queer theory.
With a deft eye for astounding surreal imagery balanced by her straightforward tone, Machado emphasizes the unspoken harsh reality of many women’s lives and the violence that plagues their bodies, along with the fracturing repercussions on the mind. While each story can stand alone, every tale adds layers of interpretation to the others, coalescing into a deeply moving exploration of the female psyche that is sensual (with much explicit sexual detail) and sensitive to the multifaceted experience of trauma.
In order, from the table of contents:
“The Husband Stitch”: This piece inventively draws from the popular horror short story “The Girl with the Green Ribbon” (also retold as “The Velvet Ribbon,” with various other renditions). It is interspersed with other urban legends like the hook-handed murderer and the wife who cooks a human liver for her husband, and even the occasional stage direction (e.g. read this story with a chorus of women’s voices). With aims to break tradition, the narrator boldly pursues her sexual desires, eventually marrying a boy and offering her love with the promise that he will never unwrap the green ribbon around her neck as “it just isn’t yours.” However, her husband becomes maniacally obsessed with the ribbon and the mystery it represents, claiming “a wife should have no secrets.” Their toddler son who first accepted it as part of his mother soon follows his father’s example and touches it, and forever “something is lost between us.”
One of my favorite short stories of all time, this work comments on how societal gender roles overemphasize female self-sacrifice and male aggression, which diminishes female independence and establishes inherently unbalanced marriage partnerships. (In one potent scene, she even undergoes “the husband stitch,” which references a post-birth medical procedure to tighten the vagina and give the man additional pleasure during intercourse, despite the woman’s pain.) As the narrator says of her husband, “he is not a bad man… and that is the root of my hurt.”
Amid raising her son to become a better man, she influences him by passing down folk tales that draw from the wellspring of women’s culture built through generations, even though these tales are traditionally disregarded in the public (male-dominated) eye. Similarly, Machado also reclaims these stories and female experiences as vitally necessary for a better future, especially as the act of such storytelling and discourse has created a community that thrives independently from patriarchal institutions. And as the narrative build-up would imply, the green ribbon is eventually untied, but not before the story unravels into a worthy finish.
“Inventory”: Alone on a deserted island, the protagonist describes the end of the world by taking inventory of all her sexual encounters (with the occasional wild escapade), with periphery details on how the apocalypse began. The narrative framework is quite interesting and parallels the outbreak of the disease (which ironically seems to have spread through sexual contact); as the narrator lists more people on her list, new victims fall ill. Though the narrator’s detachment from the situation initially left me unsatisfied, perhaps her tone results from her self-inflicted isolation, with the author’s intentional trimming of other plot lines to encourage us to read between the entries and contemplate physical absence itself.
“Mothers”: Told by an unreliable narrator, a woman seemingly has a biological child with her female ex-lover and must care for her newborn while in the throes of a drug-induced haze and potential mental illness. The story ends with uncertainty, as the child may not be hers (and if so, who are the original parents?) or could be a product of her fractured imagination. Poignant and sobering, the story intertwines the pains of motherhood and fears for one’s progeny with the distress from an abusive relationship and loss of one’s identity.
“Especially Heinous”: At novella-length, this is the collection’s longest work. Machado rewrites 120 episode blurbs (though with the same setting and two leads, Benson and Stablers) of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. She combines the original show’s gritty investigation and prosecution of sexually-based offenses with the paranormal. While reading, I spent much time imagining the ramifications of character doubles and parallel timelines, innocent girls with bells-for-eyes that whisper details of their attackers to Benson, and a city with buildings that seem to breathe. I did find that the long-paced narrative dragged in the middle (a fault of having nine original seasons in the actual show to rewrite), with its impact tempered by the sheer number of details. (Perhaps the increasingly bizarre plot arcs are a satirical reflection of how show runners continue bestselling series through such means.) It’s still an immersive, thrilling ride that prompts you to consider how sexual violence has become repackaged as mainstream-viewing, despite the near-invisibility of its victims and the emotional damage they suffer.
“Real Women Have Bodies”: In this world, an unexplained phenomenon has caused corporeal women to fade into mere wraiths, with several choosing to remain relevant by stitching themselves into the fabric of dresses. One boutique salesgirl dates the daughter of a major clothing supplier, with a rapid, bittersweet romance as her new lover starts to dissipate into the air. Amid the narrator’s emotional breakdown, there’s a powerful reflection on body image and the intrusion of the fashion industry, which encourages and capitalizes on the “existential crises” brought by unattainable and evanescent beauty standards.
“Eight Bites”: After suffering from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, the protagonist follows the advice of her three elder sisters and undertakes bariatric surgery to help her lose weight. Though initially pleased with her new body and filled with the hopes of reconnecting with her estranged daughter and family, the ghost of her former overweight self, who “gurgles” from under the floorboards when she sleeps, haunts her until her dying day. Beyond its thoughtful exploration of food and body obsession, the story examines how women pass on their values and self-hatred to their siblings and daughters, continuing the legacy of seeking impossible perfection at whatever cost.
“The Resident”: Perhaps the most autobiographically-driven, the narrator (who has the initials CM like the author) visits an artists’ residence and must contend with criticism from her peers and mysterious happenings as she slowly loses her mind in the recollection of her past and her place in the present. (To add some uncertainty on the division of the real and speculative, the author confronts a physical manifestation of herself when facing a pool of water amidst the woods.) I find this one of the most striking passages: “Do you ever worry,” she asked me, “that you’re the madwoman in the attic?” Some pages later, the narrator (and author) begins the process of self-acceptance, proclaiming, “it is my right to reside in my own mind.” It’s a powerful meta-story on coming to terms with one’s physical and mental realities, with a satirization of the Victorian ghost story (and reference to “Jane Eyre”’s Bertha Mason, the original madwoman in the attic).
“Difficult at Parties”: This last story focuses on a woman recovering from sexual assault who tries to cope with her trauma through binge-watching pornography. While caught in the hopelessness of bringing her assailant to justice and her painful disconnection with her loved ones, she starts superimposing graphic scenes and language onto her mundane social interactions until she cannot distinguish fiction from the real. Machado may have chosen this work to end the collection for how it illustrates the complexity of personal trauma worsened by the absence of structural support for justice and mental health. In addition, the story also dwells on the societal emphasis on the female body in romantic relationships and media, which propagates distorted conceptions of femininity and love (a running theme throughout the collection). Overall, a painful tale that cuts deeply, and left me hollow and raw.
And by the last page I am haunted by voices of girls with bells for eyes still ringing in my ears, phantoms that waft from the book to haunt me like shadows I cannot shed. Nonetheless, I am grateful. Each story has truths reimagined through the speculative elements and engrossing prose, each story horrifyingly and uncomfortably real and simultaneously electrifying.
Machado’s provocatively stunning short story collection reimagines the possibilities of genre and femininity, emphasizing that even if the world shuts you up in an attic, the very least you can do is reclaim the space as your own.