On Carmen Maria Machado’s Body Horrors

January 12, 2018 | 2 books mentioned 5 min read

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, an exhilarating collection of literary retellings of fables and fairy tales, Kelly Link describes the book’s indelible effect on her work:

The things that I needed when I was beginning to think about writing short stories were the things that I found in The Bloody Chamber. I needed to see how stories could be in conversation with other stories. I needed to see how playfulness and generosity and friction—of ideas, in language, in the admixture of high and low, the mythic and the psychologically realistic—were engines for story and structure and point of view.

coverLink partly attributes the vital hybridity of Carter’s work to the self-conscious storytelling inherent to supernatural literature. “The literature of the fantastic,” she writes, “is peculiar in that stories are necessarily in conversation with other stories, dependent on other stories to achieve their effect. There is no such thing as a vampire, except in stories, because of stories.” These stories cannot hide that they rely upon other stories and are, in some sense, about storytelling itself. Such work thrives by embracing this history in order to transform it.

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, brilliantly continues Carter’s and Link’s tradition of literary fabulism. In line with the relationship Link proposes between the inherent intertextuality of fantastical literature, it’s also a Pandora’s box of bold re-thinkings of the short story form. The title subtly announces Machado’s experimental intentions by twisting the standard story collection title template—X and Other Stories. The titular “Her Body” refers not to a single story in the collection, but rather to the stories’ collective concern with women’s bodies and the narratives that constrict them.

Machado begins the collection with “The Husband Stitch,” a magnificent retelling of the story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. Machado uses this retelling to reflect on the history of ghost stories and urban legends. “Everyone knows these stories—that is,” the narrator says, “everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them.” Of particular concern is the fate of women in such tales. “Brides never fare well in stories,” the narrator concludes, foreshadowing her own fate.

This explicit concern with narrative returns in “Especially Heinous,” the collection’s masterful centerpiece, which reimagines the first 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as an uncanny police procedural haunted by doppelgängers and ghostly girls with bells for eyes. It’s a rich investigation of a wildly popular contemporary narrative centered on pernicious representations of women. Machado brilliantly subverts the show’s overwrought and readymade horrors into creeping figures of the uncanny by digging deep into the show’s own logic. One mode this takes is dark parody. Pillorying the show’s use of sex workers, Machado writes:

“GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.
“RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit.
“PURE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit.

Elsewhere, Machado enriches and expands tropes of the show, bringing them into full dark bloom. The “theories” about cases the detectives constantly bat back and forth descend into nihilism: “‘My theory,’ [Benson] says to Stabler, ‘my theory is that I have a theory.’ Stabler offers to come over. ‘My theory,’ she says, ‘my theory is that there is no god.’” The show’s unending hunger for victims becomes a physical, supernatural feature of New York City, which is revealed to be built upon the back of an ancient and monstrous god, hungry for blood. By trading the show’s formulaic “realism” for phantasmagoric fabulism, Machado better approaches the abject horror of sexual violence.

Machado explores toxic cultural narratives with the same intelligence and imagination. In “Eight Bites,” the narrator undergoes invasive weight loss surgery. The story—a bitter fairy tale, complete with three unnamed sisters—is rife with the grotesque cultural rhetoric that restricts women’s eating. The narrator’s sisters, happy recipients of the surgery, proselytize: “‘I feel so good,’ they all said. Whenever I talked to them, that was what always came out of their mouths, or really, it was a mouth, a single mouth that once ate and now just says, ‘I feel really, really good.’” The weight-loss argot of transformation plagues the narrator even after she has had the surgery and awaits its effects. “Will I ever be done,” she worries, “transformed in the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?” She is transformed, but there’s a twist. The flesh she has banished returns to haunt her like a ghost inverted: pure corporeality. The narrator attacks her own flesh and rejoices in the act. “I am a new woman,” she announces. “A new woman does not just slough off her old self; she tosses it aside with force.” The story literalizes the logic of mandatory weight loss to make manifest its violence. 

Her Body and Other Parties also addresses the ways women’s lives have been and continue to be constrained by narratives that consign disobedient or unmanageable women to categories of madness or monstrosity. “The Resident” follows a novelist to a rural artist residency near the site of a mysterious childhood trauma. Chief among the narrator’s feverish worries is the reduction of her experience to a trope: “perhaps,” she says to the reader near the story’s end, “you’re thinking that I’m a cliché—a weak, trembling thing with a silly root of adolescent trauma, straight out of a gothic novel.” The story cleverly considers the troubled line between the tropifying of women in literature and life:

Lydia filled my glass to the brim. “Do you ever worry,” she asked me, “that you’re the madwoman in the attic?”“What?” I said.
“Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic story?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know. That old trope. Writing a story where the female protagonist is utterly batty. It’s sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done”—here she gesticulated so forcefully that a few drops of red spattered the tablecloth—“don’t you think? And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Do you ever wonder about that?”

When the narrator clarifies that her novel’s protagonist is a version of herself, Lydia responds, “So don’t write about yourself.” “Men are permitted to write concealed autobiography,” the narrator responds, “but I cannot do the same?” Later, she carves her name into the tablet above her writing desk, as the residency’s previous guests have done: “C—— M——.” The initials: Carmen Machado—a wink and an added layer of eerie resonance.

Though Her Body and Other Parties centers on women’s lives, at the margins lurks the ultimate source of the horrors that haunt them: men. One of the epigraphs, from a poem by Elisabeth Hewer, reads: “god should have made girls lethal / when he made monsters of men.” The men in these stories are often monstrous. But more often their acts of cruelty fade into the normal course of narrative and of life. This is the truer monstrosity of these tales and of our world. In the final scene of “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator, who has given her husband everything he has ever asked for—with the sole exception of permission to untie the green ribbon around her neck—realizes that he will not be satisfied by anything less than everything he demands. Worse: “He is not a bad man,” she reflects, “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—”

For all their formal and political complexities, Machado’s stories also return me to the elemental pleasure I felt sitting in the back of my family’s minivan absorbed in an anthology of children’s horror stories, or swaddled in a sleeping bag at summer camp listening to a counselor whisper ghost stories. And for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.

is a writer living in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, and other publications. He is a blog editor for Full Stop. Find him online at nathangoldman.com and @nathangoldman.

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