Her Body and Other Parties

by Carmen Maria Machado

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1971

Author: Carmen Maria Machado

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Publisher: Graywolf Press (Minneapolis). 245 pp.

Type of work: Short fiction

Time: Present day

Locales: Various

Her Body and Other Parties is the debut short story collection from award-winning writer Carmen Maria Machado. At its center is the experience of the female body, which Machado reclaims for women through explorations of psychological, social, and sexual themes. Each story is fantastical, eerie, and steeped in the supernatural, offering a startlingly original voice.

Her Body and Other Parties is the haunting debut book from Carmen Maria Machado, collecting stories including some of her most acclaimed pieces previously published in various literary periodicals. The eight fable-like works that comprise the book all delve into the terror women can feel living in a world that often sees them more as objects to be conquered or targets for violence than people with basic rights like safety, autonomy, or even life. As the title suggests, Machado’s primary way of examining this concept is through the visceral experience of the body, which in the case of women is often violated or appropriated, yet also capable of wonder and joy. This grounding in the physical gives rise to a complexity of psychological and social themes that further makes the collection a timely cultural commentary.

Her Body and Other Parties

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Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Carmen Maria Machado

Courtesy of Tom Storm Photography

Through the course of the eight stories, Machado leads readers through a spectrum of female experience. The diverse settings and plots show that despite best intentions, it is frequently impossible to ever find oneself completely at ease in a moment. The pieces frequently evoke aspects of fairy tales or other folk stories, capturing such tales’ deep, universal cultural meanings and built-in morals. By exploring and busting open the fairy tale genre—the kinds of stories engrained in women from a young age—Machado reveals the unease women can often feel in the world. She does not see the stories children are told as pure innocent entertainment, but neither does she see them as sinister. Rather, she seems to view them as early warnings for the young about what is to come in life. She applies these same themes to her own stories with sophistication.

The collection’s opening story, “The Husband Stitch,” is named after a rumored procedure administered to some women following childbirth that is meant to benefit the man, rather than help the woman who has just given birth. The female narrator of the story is eventually given such a “husband stitch,” though it is not the base of violence bestowed on her. The story also adapts the well-known horror tale about a woman who always wears a mysterious ribbon around her neck, which her husband is never allowed to untie. In Machado’s version, the ribbon-wearing woman and her eventual husband meet at a party as teenagers and fall in love almost immediately. Though curious about the ribbon, the man is able to resist his desire to remove it as the couple satisfy their sexual desires, marry, and settle into a seemingly happy life. Tension around the ribbon increases over the years, however, as he begins to feel she is keeping him in the dark about one of her deepest secrets. Happy to please him in any other way, she wants to keep this one secret for herself.

Interspersed within the narrative are the narrator’s summaries of fairy tales, urban legends, and fables in which women are mistrusted, subjected to violence, or are part of a mystery. One such interlude discusses the story of a woman supposedly raised by wolves, and who was said to have been later spotted raising wolf cubs. The narrator comments that she likes to believe the feral woman bore the cubs herself. Another narrated story-within-the-story is about a woman who pleases her abusive husband with her cooking skills. One day she accidentally eats the entirety of a piece of liver intended for dinner that night. Desperate and without any money to buy a replacement, she goes to the local mortuary and removes the liver of a newly deceased woman to cook. That night as she lies in bed with her husband, heavy footsteps lumber down the hall, and when the door swings open, the woman sees what she first believes to be the ghost of the corpse whose liver she stole. However, she then feels the sticky wetness of blood on the sheets next to her, and realizes she is bleeding from the hole where she removed her own liver.

The use of these mini stories helps Machado to make a larger point with her narrative, which itself is quite simple and sticks to quaint details about childbearing, weddings, drifting apart, and growing old together. At the story’s end, the woman’s husband begs to remove the ribbon, and she finally says he can, before telling him that she has always loved him more than anything. What happens next is a mystery that both reflects the nature of classic horror tales and reinforces the deeper social themes at play. In many ways, the power of stories is the story’s central message.

The following story, “Inventory,” is narrated by a woman inventorying everyone she has had sexual encounters with throughout her life, as meanwhile a deadly pandemic spreads. As she attempts to move further away from the infected areas, she comes across characters who are also plotting their escape. Machado humanizes their struggle by writing about these moments of connection between the characters.

The story’s main character, who is unnamed like many of the others in the book, begins her sexual history in her youth. High school escapades follow before she gets into deeper connections, and sometimes not, in college. From the beginning, the encounters vary between men and women, illustrating Machado’s skill in depicting LGBTQ characters. One of the core strengths of Her Body and Other Parties is the author’s ease in writing frankly and beautifully about sex. While Machado has also written pure erotica under a pseudonym, these stories are not necessarily erotic. Rather, they reveal a keen understanding of how people find emotional connection in sexual situations, and show how pleasure is usually connected to something deeper within a character.

As the world withers around her, the narrator in “Inventory” continues to find connection with those she encounters. Machado moves the plague plotline along by revealing the symptoms of the disease, and in sometimes moving detail. In one instance, the protagonist falls in love with a woman who comes across her cabin in Maine, and they begin to live together. However, one day they both notice symptoms in the new lover, and the narrator must look into her eyes to see if the virus has taken hold. When it is revealed that it has, the protagonist flees to an island where she is completely isolated, and the story ends.

The centerpiece of the collection is arguably “Especially Heinous,” a novella-length story that reimagines the descriptions of each episode from the first twelve seasons of the long-running police procedural television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Machado creates characters named “Benson” and “Stabler” who both are and are not the same characters as the stars from the series. Told in lyrical prose and creepy detail, “Especially Heinous” reveals what exposure to violence on a regular and intimate basis can do to a human, while also examining the ways women and men are affected differently.

As the “series” progresses, Benson begins to experience a haunting by young women with bells for eyes. The women are the victims of violent attacks who demand that Benson avenge their deaths. Each night, as Benson sleeps alone in her apartment—Benson being alone is also a theme in this story—she awakes in the middle of the night to the women, or has vivid dreams about them. Sometimes she allows the girls access to her body, and they control her during her trips out of the house. Stabler, meanwhile, projects the violence around him onto his wife and daughters, entertaining sometimes paranoid delusions about the safety of each, or pausing for a moment when it seems that his daughters have passed some sort of poignant milestone he was not prepared for. When shadow versions of the two characters show up, named Henson and Abler, the four characters surround each other in their storylines to surreal effect. The district attorney, who is in love with Benson, ends up dating Henson, and Abler stalks Stabler’s family. The effect is dizzying and increasingly absurd, a perfect opportunity to showcases the strangeness and strength of Machado’s writing skills.

The collection’s final story, “Difficult at Parties,” centers on a woman who is recovering from a violent sexual assault. Her boyfriend, Paul, tries to help her to hold her life together, but she has an increasingly difficult time adjusting. She regularly has fits in her sleep, and cannot connect with others. In an attempt to deal with her trauma and improve her relationship with Paul, the woman begins to order pornography to her house. The DVDs show up—“adult films for loving couples”—but as she watches them, she begins to hear the inner thoughts of the actors. The dialogue she picks up, especially from the females on screen, is filled with desperation, which the protagonist herself feels regarding her recovery from the attack.

Machado has frequently been compared to other surrealist writers like Kelly Link, and she cites writers like Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury as major influences on her work. Her skill at blending horror, science fiction, and other genres drew positive critical attention as her stories appeared in various publications, but it took the release of this collection to bring her a new level of popular attention. Her Body and Other Parties met with instant success, with reviewers almost unanimously praising it as an incredibly assured debut book. It was nominated for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and won the Bard Fiction Prize. Despite being released by a small publisher, the book went into its third printing almost immediately following publication.

Reviewers especially praised the way in which Machado reclaims the experience of women. Many commented on how she provokes discussion and examination of social norms by building upon the framework of folk stories. In a review for the New York Times, Parul Sehgal noted, “Machado is fluent in the vocabulary of fairy tales—her stories are full of foxes, foundlings, nooses and gowns—but she remixes it to her own ends. Her fiction is both matter-of-factly and gorgeously queer.” That ability to transcend genre, to combine theory and storytelling, is not one seen too often, and in Machado’s case, it is exciting to imagine what she will dream up next to follow such an exciting and enchanting debut.

Review Sources

  • Review of Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado. Kirkus, 20 June 2017, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/carmen-maria-machado/her-body-and-other-parties/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
  • Quinn, Annalisa. “‘Her Body and Other Parties:’ Be Your Own Madwoman.” Review of Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado. NPR, 8 Oct. 2017, www.npr.org/2017/10/08/553978325/-her-body-and-other-parties-be-your-own-madwoman. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
  • Robins, Ellie. “Carmen Maria Machado’s ‘Her Body and Other Parties’ Reclaims the Female Body in Subversive, Joyful Ways.” Review of Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado. Los Angeles Times, 29 Sept. 2017, www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-carmen-maria-machado-20170929-story.html. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
  • Rooney, Kathleen. “Carmen Maria Machado’s Debut Collection Thrills.” Review of Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado. Chicago Tribune, 10 Oct. 2017, www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/sc-books-her-body-other-parties-carmen-machado-1011-20171009-story.html. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.
  • Sehgal, Parul. “Fairy Tales about the Fears Within.” Review of Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado. The New York Times, 4 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/04/books/review-her-body-and-other-parties-carmen-maria-machado.html. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.

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