Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties was one of my most productive reads so far this year: it was a 20 in ’20 title, a follow-up to Machado’s memoir In the Dream House which I read earlier this year, a June TBR book that I didn’t get around to on time, an own-unread book on my shelf for over a year, and I got to cross it off all of these (arbitrary) lists by doing a buddy read with Donna @ Donna’s Reading Chair! The stories in this collection are so bizarre that we had plenty to talk about. We’ve decided to wrap this up book club style with some questions we picked up from this very helpful post, which I’ll answer after saying a little about the book.
In Her Body and Other Parties, eight collected stories feature LGBTQ+ characters, psychological horrors, sci-fi/fantasy/fabulist elements, and female traumas of a wide variety. The stories are visceral, provocative, imaginative, and eerie. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I want to briefly touch on each of the stories, and for fun I’ll rank them in order of my personal favoritism:
“Especially Heinous” – this story lays out every episode of Law and Order: SVU, using a sequential episodic format to highlight different points and implications from the popular TV series while also telling a wider story of the effects of the investigations on the main characters’ lives. I haven’t ever watched L&O:SVU so I can’t speak about any creative liberties taken, but I can say you don’t need to know the show to enjoy the story.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), two years before this book was published I took a class at the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where Machado did her MFA, in which I was assigned to write a story that used and/or was inspired by a list from pop culture; I used Grey’s Anatomy episode titles. The assignment came from a TA who was a grad student in the writing program. I’m not positive Machado was there yet at the time, but it’s interesting (to me at least) that we might have received similar assignments, or at least spoken to the same person about this idea, wherever it originally came from. It’s a small world after all.
“Inventory” – this is a list of the protagonist’s lovers, which takes a sinister turn as illness sweeps the nation, affecting her every encounter. I was not prepared for the timeliness of this story, but loved it. (Has everyone been writing about pandemics all along??) This one is tricky, in that I can see it a new way every time it crosses my mind; the meaning of the story could be that human existence is lesser without human contact, or that contact is inextricable from danger, or perhaps there’s even a deeper metaphor in which the illness is a stand-in for something else about these sexual encounters that is driving the protagonist slowly but steadily out of society- promiscuity as alienation? Lots to ponder, and I don’t think I’ve uncovered it all yet.
“The Husband Stitch” – the main relationship here feels more realistic than it does healthy so it took me a while to get into this one, but I was constantly wondering about the mysterious green ribbon the protagonist wears and the reveal did not disappoint! This story depicts ways in which women are threatened by those who want to or feel entitled to own them, and the dangers that come from policing women’s rights and autonomy.
“The Resident” – a writer secures a spot on a secluded retreat to work on her novel, but doesn’t get along well with the other artists. Not much goes on here, but I loved the atmosphere and generally enjoy stories about writing, so I had a good time with it.
“Eight Bites” – a woman who loves food but is taught to hate her food-loving body undergoes a surgery that makes it impossible for her to eat more than eight bites at a time. To gain the image she wants, she must lose part of herself. The themes are straightforward here, but I loved the fabulist element; it’s a little creepy, but also made me laugh out loud.
“Real Women Have Bodies” – in this story, women literally cease to exist when their bodies stop matching societal norms. They vanish and are gone. I think there’s more to unpick about female desires and expectations that I haven’t fully unraveled yet with this one.
“Difficult at Parties” – a man and woman with a strained relationship are working through something that they won’t talk about. I had a lot of unanswered questions with this one, but Donna and I assumed that the man has abused the woman in some physical way and this story is the aftermath, as they attempt to reconcile. I may have struggled here mostly out of a desire to not see them reconcile.
“Mothers” – two women have a biological child just as their romance fails, largely due to abuse within the relationship. The concepts were more exciting for me than the execution with this one.
On to the questions!
1) The synopsis of the book describes it as a collection of “startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” Such violence can be intentional, self-inflicted, unrealized, or without any identifiable culprit. Which of these types of violence do you personally find more frightening?
I think each type is disturbing in its own way, but for me unrealized violence and violence without an identifiable culprit is most frightening because in those cases it’s unknown/unexplained while it’s happening. Intentional and self-inflicted violence feels more tragic and sometimes infuriating to me (as with intentional violence) rather than scary.
2) Would you be more likely to recommend this book to a certain gender? Why?
No. I’d recommend it to different genders for different reasons though- I think women are more likely to find details to relate to personally in these pages, but anyone else would be able to use these horrors as a way to learn about experiences they may not be living themselves; being able to understand each other’s perspectives is important!
3) Were there any specific times you personally felt unsettled, creeped out, or genuinely frightened?
Genuinely frightened, no. I did feel unsettled by some of these stories, mostly as a result of the concepts and their real-world applications rather than by the otherworldly aspects themselves; Machado’s themes and ideas are grounded in real traumas and concerns that women face, so while her sci-fi elements didn’t terrify me directly I think they do help give a face/name to real concerns, and bring those to life in the process.
4) Do you think the final order of the published stories is a strong one, or would you have rearranged them? How would changing the order of the stories have changed your reading experience of the collection?
Donna and I actually talked about this one a bit already, and we both would’ve liked the first and last stories to be switched! Personally I really like a strong ending because that can make the reader (read: me) forget about (or at least be more willing to overlook) earlier complaints, whereas a weak ending can emphasize them, no matter how strong the start. The first story as is (“The Husband Stitch”) really ends with a bang and I think it would’ve made a great final piece; perhaps I wouldn’t have been hooked on the collection quite as quickly with a more nebulous story (“Difficult at Parties”) to start it out, but I’m more open to having a lot of unanswered questions in the beginning than the end. Otherwise the stories feel disconnected enough that I don’t think meaning would change much for me with any shuffling; my favorites and least favorites were well mixed so that I was excited to start each new piece and didn’t have any large chunks of the book that didn’t work for me at all.
5) The main characters of these stories trend toward passivity- strange things happen to them, outside of their control, while the few choices they do make are either glossed over or portrayed with a weighted inevitability which suggests there was no real choice to begin with. Do you think this style was effective?
Yes, for the points this book had to make, I think the passivity fits. Generally I do want to read characters who have and exercise agency, but here I think Machado serves her stories well by conveying that trauma makes its visits unprovoked; to exist in this world as a woman is to be constantly wary of what will happen to you, with the sense that there’s little that can be done to stop it from happening. The passivity of these characters lends them a sort of innocence that makes the horrors they face that much more frustrating. The inevitability of suffering is one of the greatest frights on display here, I think. Furthermore, the lack of agency means that most of these characters don’t have a lot of personality, which makes them easier to project oneself upon and to see as the everywoman rather than a specific, fictional person to be read and then forgotten.
6) Did you ever find yourself irritated or bored, and if so, why?
There was one story that bored me: “Mothers.” This story had a couple of great ideas at its core: the possibility of two women having a biological child of their own, and the exploration of abuse in a same-sex relationship. The latter I found interesting because I had already read Machado’s In the Dream House and so could see how some of her own experience was manifesting in this fiction. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m just not very interested in reading about motherhood, and so little happens in this story that I was not hooked on the plot the way I was by the premise. But this was one of the shortest stories of the set, so the boredom was short lived. The two longest pieces, “Especially Heinous” and “The Resident,” were actually among my favorites, so most of the book really did seem to fly by for me.
7) What is your opinion on the author’s depiction of sex throughout the collection?
To be honest I was a bit taken aback at first by how frequently sex comes into these stories; there are a lot of lovers, and Her Body and Other Parties is a book that embraces physical details. Once I knew what to expect though I liked that Machado was so open about it. Many women are shamed for their bodies and what they do with them, so it’s a relief to see celebrations of the physical in fiction. Here’s one ironic (and nsfw) quote I really liked from “Inventory:”
“She wanted cock and I obliged. Afterward, she traced the indents in my skin from the harness, and confessed to me that no one was having any luck developing a vaccine. ‘But the fucking thing is only passing through physical contact,’ she said. ‘If people would just stay apart-‘ She grew silent.”
Gender =/= sex, but I do want to add that I liked that Machado didn’t set this book up with a simple “women are victims, men are villains” dichotomy. I thought her representations of men and women were very human and appropriately flawed all around, which is remarkable considering how large a role gender plays in highlighting “the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” The problem lies primarily in power imbalances, not a war between genders. It can seem that way because it is often men who hold disproportionate power, but this is not always the case (as in abusive same-sex relationships, for example). Machado digs into the nuances.
8) In “Especially Heinous” the doppelgänger Henson tells the following story to the DA: “The sixty-fifth story is about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop, but they won’t, so we can’t.” Why do you think Law and Order: SVU is such a popular show, given that it concerns itself specifically with “sexually based offenses” which “are considered especially heinous?”
I have a few thoughts about this. The first is simply that humans are fascinated by what humans do. It isn’t only sexually based offenses that grab the attention- we like true crime, murder mysteries, sensational headlines. Anything gruesome. Maybe “like” is the wrong word, but there seems to be a morbid draw to understanding the extremes of humanity. Perhaps as a way to feel relief for those of us who don’t experience it, and perhaps as a way to feel less alone for those of us who do. That’s the optimistic answer. The pessimistic answer (these are not mutually exclusive) is that women are often objectified by society and art- I think there’s a disgusting interest in female pain, or the pain of any vulnerable person, for the enjoyment of those who don’t have similar trauma to compare it to. This, I wish we could put a stop to.
9) Did you like this book? Did you find it beautiful? Is there a difference between your answers?
Yes, yes, and apparently not. I can see how someone might find it beautiful while not enjoying it, because there are some painful topics here. Personally I appreciate books that leave me a little broken. Maybe I shouldn’t “like” that, but I won’t apologize for it either. Machado’s a strong writer and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next!
“It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right… It is my right to be unsociable and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around. Do you ever listen to yourself? This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.”
If you’ve read this book or have any thoughts on the discussion points raised through the questions here, feel free to weigh in below, and be sure to check out Donna’s review and answers as well, which I’ll link again here in case you missed it at the top! We had some different opinions on this one. If you’re into thrillers, romance, and/or adult contemporary she reads a lot from those genres and is fun to follow! 🙂
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this collection was nominated for so very many literary prizes, and I will absolutely be reading Machado’s next publication, whatever it may be. I’ll enjoy a reread of these stories at some point for sure as well!
As a final note, I’d also highly recommend Daisy Johnson’s short story collection Fen to anyone who particularly enjoys Her Body and Other Parties; Fen is also a somewhat magical and horrifying account of female experiences that I think will appeal to much the same audience. If you’re getting impatient waiting for Machado’s next book, give Johnson’s a go!
The Literary Elephant