Content warning: sexual violence.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties, has received impressive advance praise, and it is deserved. Her images are vivid, carefully-observed, and tactile to the point of stickiness; her pacing is expert. Machado executes the contemporary syntactic style of the lit-fic/weird-fic borderlands—present-tense sentences with SVO order and frequent, colloquial sentence fragments—flawlessly. (This style is not my favorite, but as my tastes are a bit anachronistic, that’s my issue, not Machado’s). Too, a few of her stories even satisfyingly resist the weird-fic tendency, an inheritance from short lit-fic, to conclude without emotional resolution.
What is most striking about the collection, however, is its honest, unapologetic portrayal of women who aren’t coping. Her stories record sexual violence, unsatisfactory relationships, microaggresions, and everyday disappointment, and since her narrators are all women, each one speaks through the smoke of fatigue systemic sexism hangs over their lives. (Machado mostly does not call attention to the smoke, but its smell lingers in the furniture of her prose). In facing these trials, her narrators cry, drink, lash out, and sink into deep depressions from which they mostly do not emerge. One woman, urged by her loving husband to reveal the only secret she owns for herself, eventually capitulates; another follows her sisters in getting bariatric surgery, estranging herself forever from her feminist daughter; a third simply fades away as the result of a ghostly illness that affects only young women (Machado’s bluntest and angriest allegory). The only really comforting ending concludes the collection’s novella, a bleakly funny retelling of “Law and Order: SVU” written as a series of episode summaries examining the emotional toll twelve seasons of witnessing horrific sexual violence take on protagonists Stabler and Benson. And even here, the happy-ish ending feels consciously artificial, as if it were Machado’s concession to hope after the collection’s lengthiest and most graphic descriptions of abuse. “The city takes a breath,” she writes. But the smoke remains.
Especially at this cultural moment, I think there is something important in telling these stories. They are not rallying cries, but their treatment of women’s emotions has the fidelity of journalism. Like a good journalist, Machado does not blame her subjects for not coping. These women are not failures; they are merely normal, and it is very normal to lack the muscles to climb above the smoke of a fire so large you cannot possibly staunch it alone. It is a credit to Machado’s honesty as a writer that of her few stories that do resolve conclusively, none confuse resolution with solace, or hope. We need those things right now, certainly, as much of them as we can possibly get. But we also need records of truth, so that they might someday become history. Among other things, literature is a record of feeling, and it is often all the truer for being fictional. Her Body and Other Parties is a grim, clear account of what it feels like to be a woman in 2017. And like a good journalist, Machado does not apologize for telling the truth.