Misogyny is boring as hell. That is one of the most valuable lessons I have learned when I started to read more books by women. Two months ago, I was scrolling mindlessly through Twitter when I saw a tweet about “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado. I honestly did not even read the tweet because I was too busy admiring the book cover. I know that we should not judge a book by its cover but a great cover draws you in as a light invites a moth. I immediately borrowed the book in our local library. The book turned out to be as wonderful as its cover.
When I say wonderful I do not mean wonderful in a way where you try to stop yourself from smiling too much while reading it on a train, it is wonderful in a way that you have to put it down once in a while to grasp for air and say ‘fuck.’ “Her Body and Other Parties” is a collection of eight short stories which centre on women’s experiences and are mostly written with a queer, haunting, otherworldly, and erratic qualities to it. Machado was able to craft tales that are perfect blend of horror, science fiction and fairy tales.
I love anthologies. My short attention span works well with the bit sizes of stories but many compilations are a hit and miss. A lot of times writers put their best story in the middle and you have to wade through the other mediocre ones to finally get the prized gem. Machado did not do that. Her first story “The Husband Stitch” is probably one if not the best horror short stories in contemporary fiction. It is also the best story to set the tone of the book. It is narrated by a wife and is set up like a retelling of a doomed love story. The narrator weaves in popular tales in her storytelling. Through these communal stories Machado explores the deep roots of the horror women go through from childhood to marriage. At the same time, she challenges our individual readings: “That may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.” Once you have finished reading this story, I suggest that you should look up what the “husband stitch” means (though medically the internet says it actually does not exist) and you will be horrified, that is if this tale did not disturb you enough.
“The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you.”from “The Husband Stich”
In the second story, “Inventory”, a woman lists her erotic experiences as a virus depopulates the world. Striding through these memories of lovers both male and female, the story delves into the blurred connection between physical intimacy and connection. And as much as I hate to say this, reading a story about a pandemic while we are in an actual pandemic is daunting. It also made me think about the connections I made and if all of those were worth something if this is indeed the end of the world.
“But the fucking thing is only passing through physical contact,” she said. “If people would just stay apart—” She grew silent. She curled up next to me and we drifted off.from “Inventory”
I have been showering the book with praises but it is not to say that it is perfect. Machado’s risks and experimentation with the narrative form is sometimes dizzying and this is observed in the next two stories: “Mothers” and “Especially Heinous”. In “Mothers’ a same-sex couple defies nature and has a baby, sending the narrator into a tailspin of fantasies and memories we are not sure are real. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”, the longest piece in the collection comprises vignettes in which Machado borrows characters and episodes from SVU and constructs a supernatural saga of doppelgängers, alien abductions, and ghosts of murdered teen girls with bells for eyes. I do not care much about SVU as a series but her prowess and passion with crafting a narrative has held me hostage. You cannot put it down even if you may feel lost in the whirlwind of it all.
“It’s not that I hate men,” the woman says. “I’m just terrified of them. And I’m okay with that fear.”from “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”
“Real Women Have Bodies” is a commentary on the fashion industry and how it preys on women’s self-image issues. In this sad tale, two young women fall in love as a mystery epidemic causes women literally to fade away. The writing here may not be as astonishing as the rest of the stories in the book but I personally find it one of the most depressing. All the calls for inclusivity and diversity in the beauty industry does not eradicate the fact women are still held to an impossible standard. To what extend are we willing to let our true selves fade away in the chance of being accepted by this fucked up society?
“The woods are quiet but for the hum of insects and twittering of birds. We peel off our clothes and soak in the sun. I examine my fingertips against the light, pink-amber halos around the shadows of my bones.”from “Real Women Have Bodies”
The neatest narrative in this collection is “Eight Bites” and it is a familiar tale (at least to me) of self-hatred and the obsession with weight loss. It centres on the promise of transformation: “It will hurt. It won’t be easy. But when it’s over, you’re going to be the happiest woman alive.” Every woman who has been through the incessant cycle of weight gain and weight loss has been too familiar of this promise. Just like the narrator of this story who hates her body I have contemplated a lot of times on whether my life will be fixed if I have the perfect body. When you are told again and again that your life will be better once you lose all that unnecessary fat you will begin to believe it and you starve yourself or go through some bariatric surgery like the main character. If you are like me and you have participated in one of those fad diets and continually obsess with the idea of being pretty and thin or if you have an eating disorder please read this story with caution.
I lean down and whisper where an ear might be. “You are unwanted,” I say.from “Eight Bites”
“The Resident” borrows the common elements of the Victorian gothic tale: an eerie out of town setting, bad weather, eccentric guests, and a mad woman. The narrator juxtaposes her present moment at the residency with a traumatic experience during Girl Scout camp years ago in that same location, an experience that occurred as a result of displaying her queerness. She descends into ‘madness’ as the lines between her past and present begins to blur. At the same time, she is writing a novel about a madwoman and another resident criticizes her for doing and ‘being’ an overdone trope. Personally, this story also makes me think of the isolating nature of the creative process and how easy it is to get stuck in our own heads. It also asks the overarching question: How much are we willing to suffer for the sake of art?
“I understood that knowledge was a dwarfing, obliterating, all-consuming thing, and to have it was to both be grateful and to suffer greatly.”from “The Resident”
Lastly, in “Difficult at Parties” a woman experiences a sexual trauma and while trying to rebuild her sex life with her partner, she suddenly hears the internal thoughts of actors in porn videos. It is an uncomfortable read not because it is graphic but because it is emotionally raw. Unlike a lot of fictional stories where a women’s trauma is turned into some exploding revenge fantasy, in this tale our main character finds it difficult to function normally again (whatever “normal” means). Trauma does not always make you stronger, often times it destroys you and the people around you.
“I want to say, Don’t bother asking me anything. I want to say, There is nothing underneath.”from “Difficult at Parties”
These eight masterfully crafted stories critique the intricacies of the feminine experiences. This collection centres around bodies that have been harmed by other people, collectively or individually, but sometimes the perpetrator is the woman herself. Women are never safe in the world of this book. Tragically that is also true in the real world. Machado was able to reveal the truths about our world through these otherworldly tales. Reading this book is an exhilarating journey and I wish everyone I know could experience it.