Authors are often challenged by the task of writing in a way that allows readers, who may not have personal experience with the topic in question, to connect with stories. This issue is all the more pressing for storytellers from underrepresented backgrounds.
Carmen María Machado’s book of short stories, “Her Body and Other Parties” (2017), aims to represent the queer and female experiences by selecting settings which are entirely outside of our world. All but one of the stories features a supernatural or otherwise unrealistic element that underscores, or is analogous to, a form of oppression. Throughout all of the stories, odd symbolism and Kafka-esque images abound. A woman has a baby but doesn’t know from where it came. The fat removed during a surgical procedure takes up residence in another woman’s attic. Girls disappear slowly and are sewn into prom dresses.
“Inventory” is an especially odd story. It tells the tale of an apocalyptic plague that almost destroys humanity almost entirely through sex scenes. Despite this limited form, the author manages to thoroughly develop her characters and world. “[The virus] is only spreading through physical contact,” one of the characters says, “If people would just stay apart.” (Machado, “Her Body and Other Parties,” 2017).
The contrast between staying apart and coming together is present throughout much of the book, as it is centered on women and their various romantic, sexual and platonic relationships. All of the stories are unsettling, like a horror movie crafted from the female experience.
The longest story, “Especially Heinous,” is written in the form of a series of “Law and Order: SVU” plot synopses. It uses actual episode titles from the first twelve seasons with invented storylines. Like the show, this piece deals with two police officers working primarily on sexual assault cases. However, while these characters are still metaphorically haunted by the crimes with which they’ve had to deal, they’re also literally accompanied by ghosts and parallel versions of themselves. Through this format, the TV series is in almost direct conversation with Machado’s writing, questioning how that show can exist in our current climate and why the longest-running iteration of “Law and Order” is the one focused on sexual assault. In this way, the story constantly challenges rape culture.
In “The Husband Stitch,” a woman wears a ribbon around her neck that she never takes off. Throughout the story, the narrator’s husband and son speculate about the ribbon’s purpose, berating the woman about why she wears it. Despite their constant questions, it remains unexplained until the end. The writing has a careful, hesitant narration style that simply states things as they are. Along the way, the narrator recounts different parables along with her own story, adding to the metafictional element and making the reader doubt their own expectations surrounding heterosexual relationships.
Machado uses similar techniques to play with a different relationship: that between reader and story. The last piece, “Difficult at Parties,” begins in the hospital after the main character has suffered some kind of trauma, which Machado never describes. Rather, the story focuses squarely on her recovery, and, after a while, the audience almost feels guilty for ever even wondering why she’s in the hospital.
The penultimate story, “The Resident,” takes many of these themes and weaves them together into one cohesive whole. It is the only tale without any obvious paranormal elements. I would say that it doesn’t need them, but that would imply that the supernatural is unnecessary to the other stories. In reality, the extranormal is an integral element to the other stories, for, without it, the stories wouldn’t exist. Similarly, its absence is important to “The Resident.” Despite the apparent normality of the subject matter, Machado still manages to create suspense by reflecting across time and circumstance the common narrative of young people exploring their sexuality, so as to distort it and subvert it to the maximum extent.
I had the fortune of hearing Machado speak about her book at an event hosted by Lighthouse Writers, a lovely nonprofit based in my hometown of Denver, CO. She seemed vivacious and steadfast. I was particularly impressed with the delicacy of her style in “Her Body and Other Parties” and the range of writing that her work represents.
As social justice has become a part of mainstream discourse on almost every subject, and especially as the #MeToo era makes people re-evaluate the relationships between men and women, this book is as relevant as ever. However, “Her Body and Other Parties” is more than just a momentarily topical piece, as it combines elements of horror and universal relatability to create a set of unsettling stories that will surely stand the test of time.