Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press, 2017; 241 pp
Reviewed by Abby Burns
I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.
Carmen Maria Machado populated her debut story collection Her Body and Other Parties with people all too familiar: women negotiating love with violence, sexuality with shame, beauty with horror. Delightfully visceral, these stories invite the reader to witness and experience the various traumas and pleasures that women live in their day-to-day lives as they are translated into a generic cornucopia of horror, fabulism, surrealism, and more. This fusion, or perhaps transcendence, of literary tradition gives the collection a sense of play that sweetens its stories’ dark subject matter without appeasing it.
In fact, these stories seem to demand their readers recognize the grotesque horrors they embody, not with some fleeting concession or with voyeuristic sensationalism, but with solidarity. This project is most direct in what is, ostensibly, its most polarizing story; “Especially Heinous” reimagines the synopses of 13 seasons of “Law & Order: SVU,” a popular long-running television show that dramatizes sexually-based offenses in search of entertainment and outrage. Machado’s careful conversion of the procedural here allows her to layer story with a radical critique of pop culture, all while maintaining the best of her poeticism. Some of these synopses could easily stand-alone as prose poetry or flash fiction:
“Selfish”: The medical examiner can’t bring herself to admit that sometimes, she’s the one who wants to be cut open, to have someone tell her all of her own secrets.
While these snippets have enough punch to render the story memorable, in a 60-page compilation, they unfortunately end up feeling as laborious as watching 13 seasons of a procedural drama.
As with all the best literature, readers will feel Machado’s words as they bypass the mind to swarm the body. When the narrator’s husband and her doctor gleefully discuss mutilating her body, when a group of children lead their sleepwalking peer into a cold forest, when prostitutes are murdered and women surrender their bodies to bariatric surgery, your muscles will clench as though your body feels the need to protect itself from catching brutalities. However, this collection does not begin and end with violence. Readers will also experience queer joy in sex, intimacy, and companionship because, as much as her characters suffer, Machado makes her idealism clear. She believes in a world where impossible things happen, where love outstrips brutality, and with these eight stories, she will make you believe it too as she transforms violence into something beseechingly new and beautiful.