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In Carmen Maria Machado’s dazzling debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, the Vox Book Club’s pick for April, everything always comes back to the body.
Specifically, everything always comes back to women’s bodies, and all their attendant neuroses: the shame associated with women’s flesh, with fat; the way the body stores trauma; the physically embodied joy of holding a baby; all the many attacks and encroachments a woman’s body suffers.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? A woman’s body never exists in isolation. There is always her body, and there are also always all those other parties who believe they are entitled to it.
That entitlement is explored to its most sinister effect in “The Husband Stitch,” the strongest and most celebrated story in the collection. It features a woman who always wears a green ribbon around her neck, and who finds herself constantly protecting her ribbon from her husband’s encroachments.
“A wife should have no secrets from her husband,” he tells her.
“The ribbon is not a secret; it’s just mine,” she responds. She tells him not to touch it, but during sex he pins her to the bed and takes the ribbon in his hands.
Here, Machado is riffing off a heaving, seething mass of tales: not just that old horror story “The Green Ribbon,” but also an urban legend about a hook-handed man, a folk tale about a feral girl raised by wolves, a fairy tale about a woman who cuts out her own liver to feed her husband. The story that gives “The Husband Stitch” its title, though, is true: It refers to what happens when an obstetrician adds an extra stitch to his repair of the vaginal opening after an episiotomy, to heighten the pleasure of a male partner during sex. The entitlement Machado is describing, the sense that it is fine to treat women’s bodies primarily as objects for someone else’s gratification, is not confined to the realm of fiction.
Fiction, though, might offer one of the best ways to look at this ideology: slantwise, so that the full horror and tragedy and humor involved can come seeping out of the corners where they hide. In “Especially Heinous,” the novella that forms the centerpiece of the book, Machado turns her Angela Carter gaze on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the fairy tale that has become our culture’s favorite way to think about women’s bodies and all we are entitled to extract from them.
In Machado’s version of the story, beautiful teen model after beautiful teen model is raped and murdered, a string of doppelgänger sex crimes that mimics the repetitive structure of SVU itself. The murdered girls become ghosts with bells for eyes who haunt Olivia Benson’s apartment, and the repetitive dun-dun of the show’s theme becomes the breathing of a vast monster on whose sleeping back New York City rests. “Stabler and Benson will never forget the case where solving the crime was so much worse than the crime itself,” goes one of Machado’s deadpan episode descriptions.
Benson grows steadily unhinged over the course of “Especially Heinous,” but who could blame her? Isn’t that a logical reaction to a life of watching women get raped and murdered and avenged, in a world where we relax by watching a TV show about women getting raped and murdered and avenged?
“Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic trope?” asks the annoying antagonist of “The Resident,” a Victorian-inflected horror story about an artist’s residency in the Catskills. The narrator, a writer we know only as C.M., responds at first by protectively describing her autobiographical protagonist as simply “in her own head a lot.” Later, she signs herself madwoman in her own attic.
Going mad, Machado seems to suggest, is a perfectly reasonable response to the world we’re living in. But if you’re writing the story, at least you’ll be building yourself your own attic.
Machado, at any rate, seems to have managed it. In her follow-up book, a memoir published in 2019, she built a whole Dream House.
Share your thoughts on Her Body and Other Parties in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Carmen Maria Machado. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- This is the first short story collection we’ve read in the book club! How do you feel about it? Did you like it better than our usual novels?
- Do you prefer short story collections built around a common theme, or do you like to skip around through different ideas?
- What’s your favorite story in the collection? Least favorite? I generally think “Difficult at Parties” is the weakest, but I can be convinced otherwise.
- There’s been some critical debate over whether Her Body is playing more with fairy tales or urban legends. Do you think the distinction is meaningful? Where do you fall?
- When it comes to women’s bodies, what are other parties entitled to?