A Magnificent Experience in Feminism
Carmen Machado's Her Body and Other Parties offers a complete cross-sectional view of femininity, linking the issues that most omit.
In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between realism and science fiction, comedy and horror. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women's lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
A surreal anthology of experimental stories, Machado’s debut work weaves together feminism, literary fabulism, horror, and psychology into an encompassing piece on gendered oppression and female interiority.
Through engaging with a variety of genres across eight individually memorable pieces, readers leave this book with a complete cross-sectional view on femininity, understanding the interdependent links between issues that most authors omit for simplicity.
Her Body and Other Parties is a masterfully crafted anthology, switching between experimental forms and troupes in an elegant and cohesive manner. While these short stories cannot be any more different from one another, they all carry the same disarming and unsettling undercurrent which beautifully ties the anthology together. Machado strikes a perfect balance between grounded commentary and cryptic prose; although some pieces appear absurd and nonsensical at first read, this book will indubitably captivate you from start to end, keeping you engaged with its macabre tone and compelling references.
Given the book’s abstract nature, different stories will resonate more than others for everyone. While some may enjoy her more realistic pieces with nods to modern-day culture, others will find her visceral and metaphorical works more alluring. I personally enjoyed those which fell in the middle of this spectrum best, where Machado plays with imaginative prose and bizarre metaphors whilst maintaining a realistic sense of structure.
In conjunction with many other readers, one of my favorite stories was “The Husband Stitch," a wonderfully inventive retelling of a French horror story on a green ribbon around a girl’s neck. The title refers to an extra stitch sewn on after childbirth meant to tighten a woman’s vaginal opening, thus improving male pleasure. Machado’s retelling elevates the original story through her focus on the green ribbon as a symbol of male ownership and entitlement. With her stunning language and allusions, she conveys important messages on the demands and conditions placed on women’s bodies, transforming a simple folk tale into a poignant conversation on today’s issues.
I also enjoyed “Inventory," which was a fantastic follow-up to the impeccable opening. As its name suggests, this piece was a rather literal inventory (or a recount) of the narrator’s partners as a global plague halts all life on the planet. Although pandemic literature is the last thing anyone wants to read right now, I urge you to give this short story a shot. The chronological parallels drawn between the narrator’s emotional and sexual maturation and the spread of the virus grow progressively more unsettling as the plot builds up. This story is filled with tension and wistful emotion, gripping us through inserting undertones of inescapable dread in what otherwise would have been an innocuous story about growing up.
“Real Women Have Bodies," while more difficult to discern than the two aforementioned short stories, was another piece that left me with a brutal and candid sense of catharsis. Set in a world where women gradually fade into their own skin, our narrator falls in love with a translucent girl. The invisibility of women in this story leaves room for interpretation: among other things, I found myself thinking about suppression, eating disorders and physicality, the failure to meet expectations, and the inevitability of aging.
The narrative she poses here fantastically borders lunacy. The writing is raw and vividly dreamlike. Most impressively, the concepts are electrifying and fearless and ethereal.
This book entrancingly shapes itself for the reader. Machado uses the book’s abstract nature to her advantage, allowing each reader to independently develop unique interpretations through providing limited concrete details that one can hold on to. Without a common baseline, one is forced to resort to their own ideas and experiences on femininity and gender to the point where a common interpretation ceases to exist. While to me, this work is about the female body as a political landscape, it is not the same for anyone else – to others, it is about women giving and sacrificing to men, about the guilt that one carries with exploring their sexuality, about women losing themselves along with their youth. For this reason, I encourage you to explore this book alone. You will doubt yourself and second-guess your interpretations. You will question whether the version you’re seeing and the version others are seeing even stem from the same book at all. Regardless, you will achieve a thrilling and provocative understanding that’s, rewardingly, all yours to digest.