In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and K...
Her Body and Other Parties is a 2017 short story collection by Carmen Maria Machado, published by Graywolf Press.
Carmen Maria Machado is an American short story author, essayist, and critic frequently published in The New Yorker, Granta, Lightspeed Magazine, and other publications. Her story collection Her Body and Other Parties was published in 2017. A finalist for the National Book Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, her stories have been reprinted in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, The New Voices of Fantasy, and Best Women's Erotica. Her memoir In the Dream House was published in 2019. Machado lives in Philadelphia with her wife.
Machado earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has received fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the University of Iowa, the Yaddo Corporation, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. Machado also attended the Clarion Workshop where she studied under authors such as Ted Chiang.
Machado says her writing has been influenced by Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, and Y?ko Ogawa. In particular, Machado says she was heavily influenced by Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was given to her to read by an "insightful and amazing English teacher" when she was in the 10th grade of high school.
Machado's short stories, essays, and criticism have been published in a number of magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, Tin House, Lightspeed Magazine, Guernica, AGNI, National Public Radio, Gulf Coast, Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, and other publications. Her stories have also been reprinted in anthologies such as Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2017, Year's Best Weird Fiction, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, and Best Women's Erotica. Machado's short story "Horror Story," originally published in Granta in 2015, details a lesbian couple's difficulty coping with a haunting in their new house.
Machado's fiction has been called "strange and seductive" while also noting that her "work doesn't just have form, it takes form." Her fiction has been a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Franz Kafka Award in Magic Realism, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Calvino Prize from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Louisville; as well, an analysis by Io9 indicated that if not for the Sad Puppies ballot manipulation campaign, Machado would have been a finalist for the 2015 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.In 2018, she won the Bard Fiction Prize.
Her horror-inspired short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was published by Graywolf Press in 2017. It was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award John Leonard Prize,and was shortlisted for the 2018 Dylan Thomas Prize. The collection has been optioned by FX and a television show is in development by Gina Welch.
As of 2018, she is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania. Machado is a 2019 recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship.
Machado was Guest Editor of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 edition.
"The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror" (Granta)
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (Harper's Bazaar)
"Mary When You Follow Her" (VQR)
"Eight Bites" (Gulf Coast)
"Blue" (Tin House)
"The Husband Stitch" (Granta)
"Horror Story" (Granta)
"Inventory" (Strange Horizons)
"Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead" (Lightspeed Magazine)
"Especially Heinous" (The American Reader)
“The Book of the Dead” (BBC Radio 4)
"A Cat, a Bride, a Servant" (Garage)
"A Brief and Fearful Star" (Slate/Future Tense)
"Relaxation Technique" (McSweeney's Quarterly Concern)
"Miss Laura's School for Esquire Men" (Tin House)
"The Old Women Who Were Skinned" (Fairy Tale Review)
"Descent" (Nightmare Magazine)
"My Body, Herself" (Uncanny Magazine)
"Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa" (Lightspeed Magazine)
Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU (novella, The American Reader, May 2013)
Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf Press, 2017)
In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, 2019)
In an interview with The Paris Review, Machado talked about her inspiration for the story "Especially Heinous" where she re-imagined episodes of Law & Order: SVU: "My initial idea was to rewrite the existing episode descriptions in slightly surreal versions. So I looked up the little capsule descriptions of the episodes, and I was trying to manipulate them to make them surreal, but it was too restrictive. Then I realized that all the titles are one-word titles. And what if I just use the titles? I put only the titles all in a row, and then just started writing and imagining Benson and Stabler.
Literary significance and reception
Critical reviews were extremely positive.
Parul Sehgal wrote, "It’s a wild thing, this book, covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, and borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror." A review in Slate said, "In eight searingly original stories, Machado uses the literary techniques of horror and science fiction to expose the truth about our modern parables: that they’re as grotesque and enchanting as any classic fairy tale."
Novelist Kathleen Rooney, writing in The Chicago Tribune, wrote, "In her twistedly original and thrilling debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blends both the terrifying and the horrible into a psychologically realistic and darkly comic mixture."
An NPR review also compared her to Angela Carter, and concluded, "Machado seems to answer: The world makes madwomen, and the least you can do is make sure the attic is your own."
How much to get that extra stitch?” the narrator’s husband asks in the labour room as his wife is sewn up after a difficult birth. “You offer that, right?” “The husband stitch” – the term for an extra stitch to tighten the vaginal opening when repairing an episiotomy – is considered a dark joke from the battlefield of birth, but has been attested to as part of the violence visited on women’s bodies during labour. It’s also the title of the standout story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, a finalist in last year’s US National Book awards: a tense, seductive fairytale about rumour and silence, sex and power, autonomy and being ignored.
The narrator begins as a bold girl in the tradition of Angela Carter: “This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them ... It is not normal that a girl teaches her boy, but I am only showing him what I want, what plays on the inside of my eyelids as I fall asleep.” She takes this young man as her husband, offering him her whole self – all except the mystery of what lies beneath the green ribbon tied in a bow around her throat. “Why do you want to hide it from me?” he asks. “I’m not hiding it,” she replies. “It just isn’t yours.” The ribbon becomes a locus for desire, aggression, control; their child had accepted it as part of his mother, but when he sees the father’s angry attempts to pull at the ends must also be warned away. “Something is lost between us, and I never find it again.” There is only one possible ending: just as Chekhov’s gun must be fired, this ribbon must eventually be untied.
You may recognise the setup from that hoary old horror story “The Green Ribbon” (inexplicably retold for first graders in the US by Alvin Schwartz in In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, thereby traumatising a generation). Machado folds many folk tales into “The Husband Stitch”, from the modern classic about the hook-handed murderer disturbing teenagers who are making out in a parked car to stories of a girl who is dared to go to a graveyard after dark and an old woman who must find a liver to cook for her husband.
Machado’s skill here is to bring out what these communal stories share, exploring their deep roots in women’s experience over centuries and the way they run together “like raindrops in a pond”. 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.” She also gives stage directions, busting the story out from the page: to recreate the sound of an episiotomy, “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.”
None of the other seven stories is as achieved as this one, but there’s a ragged glory to their formal experimentation and erotic fearlessness, and the gusto with which they reinvent horror, SF and fairytale tropes. Sex and death are the dominant themes, with two stories charting passion against the backdrop of apocalypse.
“Inventory” lists a woman’s erotic experiences, from the first inklings of desire in childhood, through memories of lovers both male and female, as a virus depopulates the world and any chance of physical connection dwindles. In “Real Women Have Bodies”, a riff on fashion and the constraints of body image, two young women fall in love as a mystery epidemic causes women literally to fade away. “I don’t trust anything that can be incorporeal and isn’t dead,” says one man, recasting the old misogynist joke about menstruation.
“Eight Bites” is a neat tale about self-hatred and bariatric surgery, with the fairytale 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.” “Especially Heinous”, meanwhile, is a baggy monster: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”, this bizarre phantasmagoria of the US TV show is written in the form of surreal episode synopses. Poking fun at cop show cliche (“‘I hate this goddamned city,’ Benson says to Stabler, dabbing her eyes with a deli napkin”) while interrogating the way sexual violence is served up as primetime viewing, it also satirises the tendency of long-running narratives to become increasingly baroque, adding in ghosts, demons, doppelgangers and the conviction that “New York is riding on the back of a giant monster”.
Machado’s manipulation of literary registers can lead to odd and jarring effects, as in the deeply uncomfortable “The Resident”, which uses the fusty language of the Victorian ghost story for a contemporary tale about an artists’ colony that teems with every horror cliche imaginable. We encounter a spooky old hotel, terrible weather, buried memories about the nascent sexuality of pubescent girls, tears “the temperature of blood” and some truly disgusting psychosomatic pustules. Towards the end the mannered veneer cracks open to expose something quietly extraordinary. Like many of these pieces, it falls somewhere between exercise and inspiration, but it signals a writer of rare daring.
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