CARMEN MARIA MACHADO Her Body and Other Parties. Reviewed by Carmel Bird
Machado’s stories twist and turn and startle and shock.
The first piece in this exhilarating collection of eight unconnected short stories begins with a beguiling instruction to readers suggesting that, if they are reading the text out loud, there are certain tones of voice for the characters. This is of course a brilliant way for the story to get up close to the reader, and also to list and establish the types of characters. Throughout this story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, there are inserted several other less benign instructions, such as telling readers to ‘give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb’. Just pause for a moment and let your imagination go to work on what you have been told. Not so beguiling now. The female narrator plays her nasty game with readers to the end.
These stories are all horror tales of one kind and another. And not in the usual sense of horror – this is not Shirley Jackson or Stephen King. There’s more sex, for one thing, and more that is truly weirdly surreal and dehumanised. The world as seen in this collection is a very terrible place, and it seems it is doomed. Although, according to the three pages of heartfelt acknowledgements to a huge range of people, the author has much for which to be grateful.
There are several levels to ‘The Husband Stitch’ – on one level it is set in an ordinary world of courtship and marriage, on another it is a story of hot sex, on another a folk tale, and on another the telling of urban myth around a fire late at night. Early on the narrator, a young girl having sex in a parked car with a boy, introduces the genre of the urban myth, imagining a ‘hook-handed man, a ghostly hitchhiker’. Now this girl is wearing, and will wear throughout her life, a green ribbon around her neck. So readers can assume they know how the story ends, knowing the urban myth of the green (red in some versions) ribbon that holds the woman’s head on. Because this is a perverse and literary retelling of the myth of the green ribbon, and because the prose is mesmerising, readers are led to wonder whether the ending will be traditional or not. Just when you think you have things sorted, the narrative will suddenly turn on you.
Every story teases readers in some way or another. They all twist and turn and startle and shock. The brilliance of it all resides in the skill with which the writer plays her hand, the deftness, certainty and music of her language. A woman’s heart ‘surges with fear, a fish with a steel hook through the ridge of its lip’. The reader is in trouble – the writer has the reader, not just in the palm of her hand, but by the throat, with an offer of sinister and savage violence. Take your breath away? Well, yes. The narrator even instructs readers to do that thing where you take shorter and shorter breaths until you faint. The publisher has played along, producing on the book jacket a ribbon of the most sickening shade of green. And the ribbon threads and slices at the naked body of a woman – the cover puts your teeth on edge, for starters.
So you might be good and ready, by the time you get to the fifth story, a 60-page novella, for something titled ‘Specially Heinous’. It is, too. Among other things, this story vividly satirises TV cop shows that present, night after night, entertainment that depends on the abject abuse of vulnerable human beings, in particular women. The most striking aspect of this novella is its form. It is presented as 272 summaries of, or comments on, episodes of Law and Order: SUV. And a fair bit of it is hilarious. Weirdly horrible narratives thread in and out of the episodes, with recurring characters and tropes, and hideous shocks as well as eerie moments of ominous calm. Benson is haunted throughout the narrative by a group of murdered girls with ringing bells in their eyes. Sometimes, instead of Benson and Stabler, there are Henson and Abler. In their city and in their lives things work in quiet edgy counterpoint to events in the lives of Benson and Stabler. Close to the end ‘Stabler tackles Abler to the ground’, and quite soon Benson shoots Abler and Henson dead. Now, ‘without Henson and Abler, Benson and Stabler don’t know what to do with themselves’. The central satire is encapsulated early on, when Henson whispers to the DA:
[of] ‘… a world which watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away.’
And just as you can turn on Law and Order: SUV for the 500th time and know where it’s at, and feel at home, you can wish this novella might just go on and on. Why is this? Well, it’s the author’s absolute confidence in what she is doing; it’s the rhythm of the prose; it’s the clarity of the images – the wonder of being mixed up in something that’s daring to tell the truth in its own marvellous way. It’s not without its surreal touches:
On a Wednesday, they catch so many bad guys that Benson throws up seventeen girls in one afternoon. She laughs as they spill out of her, tumble into her vomit like oil slicks, and dissipate into the air.
The hopelessness of humanity is steadily traced out in ‘Inventory’. The ordinary documentation of a woman’s sex life is presented over time, but gradually into the narrative comes, little by little, the creepy progress of a plague which, by the end of the story, has placed the whole world in jeopardy. The narrator says:
I keep thinking I can see the virus blooming on the horizon like a sunrise. I realize the world will continue to turn, even with no people on it. Maybe it will go a little faster.
This is a neat example of the author’s frequent sly technique of slipping the germ of horror into a developing story of more or less ordinary life, and ever so quietly giving the horror the upper hand, in this case wiping out the human race.
Something akin to Freud’s uncanny drives these tales – the dreadful thing is uncovered, and once uncovered, is seen to be not unexpected at all, but part of the way things are. Enjoy. But maybe just don’t try that breathing exercise in the first story.
Carmel Bird is the author of 30 books, including novels, collections of short fiction, and books on writing, such as Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life. Her most recent novel is Family Skeleton. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Award. Her e-book of eight short stories The Dead Aviatrix was published in November 2017 and is available from Amazon.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.