When meeting a book, an epigraph is a first glance. Shy and brief, epigraphs are flirtations, and invitations. Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, has two epigraphs; rather than a quick first glance, this is a double take. The first, from poet and essayist Jacqui Germain, begins, “My body is a haunted / house that I am lost in.” The second, from poet Elisabeth Hewer, is found on the next page. It’s sharp and quick, knifelike: “god should have made girls lethal when he made monsters of men.” Two epigraphs, two pages, and the space between them is a breath, telling the reader to be ready. This is a gothic book in every sense, with lots of girls lost in haunted houses of many sorts, but it’s also something new: these girls are lethal, or at least wish they could be.
The women in Machado’s collection – and there are so many women, so many different women – do a lot of different things in different places, times, and realities. They fight, fuck, cry, write, and fade away. Her Body is a delightful two hundred page bricolage of storytelling about queer women and how they – and their bodies – exist in the world. Magical realism is fused smartly with older forms – there’s fabula and folklore, and an ageless synthesis of the sacred and the mundane. It’s a beautifully weird collection. Many of the stories delighted me, with women who feel like my friends or myself, but many of them made my skin crawl – a different sort of delight. In the gothic, the uncanny, Machado draws out deep fears always present in the genre: feminine hysteria, the kind of gendered fear that sits deep within our bones. Her Body reminds us that horror, for women, is often found in the ordinary, the everyday world around them.
And the stories are, certainly, filled with the ordinary: Machado’s women are writers in cabins, prom dress shop clerks selling taffeta to teenagers, mothers and sisters and wives. The embrace of the familiar is what makes Her Body’s use of the fantastic and horrific so enthralling. Every story in the collections does this a different way. Within “Mothers” are some of the most visceral and haunting descriptions of otherwise mundane, everyday objects you’ll ever read. Bottles, mirrors, sweet Italian peppers “tense as hearts” all fill the page, taking up a magical space created by Machado’s prose. The narrator of the story thinks, ”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.” In many ways, this is the collection’s central thesis: both question and answer, argument and compromise. Transformation is Machado’s talent, and nothing proves this more than “Especially Heinous”, her 70-odd page attempt to retell every episode of Law and Order: SVU – all 272 of them. For someone who felt repulsed by any desire other women might have to watch eighteen seasons of a show about rape and sexual violence, Machado’s transmogrification of the procedural is startling: episode summaries referencing the deplorable actions of rapists and pedophiles are rendered into surreal and often funny poetry about a show with a dark heart led by characters who, by the 272nd retelling, you’ve grown to love.
Her Body and Other Parties is a provocative debut that holds many small worlds within its pages, and in those worlds are people you already know. There’s the woman you grew up to be, or want to become, or wish you weren’t. The collection’s biggest charm is that bundled deep inside the strange, the queer, the weird, is the familiar. Machado has given us a mirror of distorted images, but our reflections are in there all the same. •