There’s a contradiction inherent in the title of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties. On one hand, the title refers to the empowerment of taking pleasure in one’s own body, that the body can and should be a cause for celebration for its owner. On the other, more insidious hand, there’s the sense that “her body” is a party thrown for the benefit of others, something to be enjoyed by everyone else but its owner. This contradiction, this push and pull between autonomy and powerlessness, so present in the everyday lives and experiences of women, is burned into each of the eight stories in Machado’s collection, which uses the idea of “genre”—horror, fantasy, science fiction—to explore the surreality of what it’s like to be a woman.
Machado studied writing formally at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop; as such, her stories often straddle the line between “literary” and “genre” fiction, to the point that such distinctions cease to have meaning. Indeed, the first story, “The Husband Stitch,” about a wife who rejects her husband’s wishes to unwrap the bow tied around her neck, is neither a work of pure “realist” fiction nor is it a work of “genre” fiction. Is the bow an actual bow or is it some sort of supernatural bow? The bow is clearly a metaphor: for the secrets women keep from those closest to them; for the fact that no matter how much a woman gives up for her family, it will never quite be enough. The more the husband is rebuked, the more physical his entreaties become, and in this way the bow also functions as a metaphor for how terrifying male entitlement can be. Supernatural or not, a bow is not just a bow, just like a woman can never be just a woman.
Women’s bodies signify so much, both to ourselves and others, that inhabiting them and having ownership over them often feel like two different states of being. How exactly sex fits into this is a major concern of Machado’s collection. Sex is so often the source of violence against women, and yet, Machado suggests, sex, when it’s consensual, is a significant way that women exercise power in their lives.
As one might expect from a book called Her Body and Other Parties, the collection is full of sex—raunchy sex, restrained sex, queer sex, straight sex. Most, if not all, of the stories feature women that are unabashedly horny. The first line of the first story in the book reads, “In the beginning, I know I want him before he does. This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them.” That line comes from “The Husband Stitch,” the aforementioned tale of a husband who becomes increasingly desperate to possess every part of his wife. Despite the entitlement of her husband’s entreaties and despite being aware of how society views women who love sex, the narrator owns her lust and is genuinely excited for every opportunity to exercise it. “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me,” the narrator says, “and I am unafraid to make more of them.”
Machado is refreshingly frank, not only about the enjoyment of sex, but also about its physicality. One narrator describes her lover as being “knuckle-deep” inside her; another enumerates precisely how many fingers her lover uses to pleasure her (three). Pretty much every narrator in the book describes herself as wet or “slick.” In “Mothers,” in which a woman’s ex-lover inexplicably surprises and leaves her with a baby, the narrator recalls the sight of the “pink shock” of her lover’s labia. The characters in “Mothers” have sex so often and with such vigor that the narrator thinks over and over again, “Thank god we cannot make a baby.” Machado’s chosen word for the vagina is “cunt,” which boldly calls to mind not only the sex organ but also the derogatory name for women who are deemed difficult. If the women in the book are difficult, it is only because they have desires.
None of the narrators in the collection have names, but they do have bodies, since a woman’s way of being in the world—the way she is identified by others, the way she identifies herself—is first and foremost through her corporeal existence. So what, then, is a woman without her body? This question is made literal in “Real Women Have Bodies,” which takes place in a version of our world, different only in that young women have begun to turn “incorporeal,” their bodies fading into nothing. These girls and women are not dead, per se, just invisible, imperceptible. They are described as “afterthoughts.” The narrator of the story works at a boutique dress store in the mall, the interior of which is painted black as a reminder, according to the store’s owner, that “we are mortal and youth is fleeting.” “Also,” she says, “nothing makes pink taffeta pop like a dark void.” The men who work at the photography studio nearby “gawk at the customers and shout rude comments.” They lewdly joke about being with women who have “enough flesh for you to grab on to” and yet they seem confused by the narrator, who has not begun to fade, whom they describe as being “like a stone.”
The central conceit of the story, of course, works as incisive social commentary, even if the message is obvious. But Machado knows that an idea, even one as solid (pun intended) as this, is not enough to make a story. A story needs characters and intimacy to ground it, to raise the stakes. The personal is political is personal. Midway through, “Real Women” transforms into a compelling intimate and heartbreaking relationship drama between two woman dealing with the uncanny, unfathomable circumstances of this new world both together and separately.
The lived reality of womanhood is so often surreal, marked by a constant vacillation between authority and acquiescence, reverence and monstrousness, that it makes sense the way to process it would be through genre fiction, whether the genre be horror, science fiction, or fantasy. With this collection, Machado joins the ranks of Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Alexandra Kleeman, writers who work towards a feminist aesthetic both by using and subverting genre conventions.
Her Body and Other Parties is a masterful assemblage of tales that is at once luminous and dingy, sexy and terrifying, queer and mundane. These wondrous stories remind readers not only that the lives of women are full of paradoxes and contradictions, but that fiction as an endeavor is especially powerful when it takes as its task the examination of these ambiguities.