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Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s work has appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, NPR, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Nebula Award and a Shirley Jackson Award, and was a finalist for the Calvino Prize. She lives in Philadelphia.

Blurbs

“Machado’s debut collection brings together eight stories that showcase her fluency in the bizarre, magical, and sharply frightening depths of the imagination. . . . The fierceness and abundance of sex and desire in these stories, the way emotion is inextricably connected with the concerns of the body, makes even the most outlandish imaginings strangely familiar. Machado writes with furious grace. She plays with form and expectation in ways that are both funny and elegant but never obscure. . . . An exceptional and pungently inventive first book.”

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties tells ancient fables of eros and female metamorphosis in fantastically new ways. She draws the secret world of the body into visibility, and illuminates the dark woods of the psyche. In these formally brilliant and emotionally charged tales, Machado gives literal shape to women's memories and hunger and desire. I couldn’t put it down.”

– Karen Russell

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Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

07/06/17

There is no book I have wanted to recommend more than Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. I have always had favorites. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy is one the most crushingly believable dystopias I’ve ever encountered, James S.A. Corey delivers a nuanced and heartbreaking look at oppression and the cycles of history in The Expanse, and no matter how many times I read it, I never made it through John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle without Doctor Burton’s monologues moving me to tears. Yet, despite their beauty and the deep sense of wonder these books inspire, I recommend them selectively by audience. Despite its brevity, few of my friends have completed In Dubious Battle; despite its painful plausibility, Atwood’s work can be straining; despite its fun, The Expanse is not a masterwork at the level of the sentence.

Machado’s work is not like my other favorites because there is no audience to which I am not desperate to give it. After reading the collection’s first story, “The Husband Stitch,” I told my girlfriend she had to read it. After reading the collection’s second story I sent an email to my professor telling him that she displayed the concept of maneuverability that we’d discussed in class perfectly. After a friend posted on Facebook asking if anyone had recommendations for books by women, particularly that dealt with mental illness, the collection’s penultimate story jumped to mind.

There was very little in this collection that I did not fall in love with. The stories are beautiful, horrifying, and filled with a cutting observational eye. Machado’s characters are so fully rendered, so empathetically engaged, so painfully confused, that they feel more real than the constructs of any writer I’ve yet read.

Machado breaks every rule of a creative writing workshop. Some of her stories are lists, one dictates impossible instructions for how it should be read out loud, one is a summary of twelve seasons of Law and Order SVU. They display the deepest tenant of writing, not to show instead of tell, not to write what you know, but that if you can break a reader’s heart with every sentence, you can do whatever you want. Machado’s prose is so good that even in the SVU recap, which is long, I hung on the edge of every episode summary, wondering what strange and seemingly random place the next one would take me. Even when the stories in this collection feel at their most dissonant, an underlying logic drives them forward. In this Machado is able to achieve an atmosphere of horror, without ever having to throw a bucket of blood onto the wall.

This atmosphere is perhaps the book’s most interesting aspect, and I think the one that makes the most powerful and unifying statement. In one of the collection’s stories, the protagonist is clearly at the center of a horror cult. Strange boils appear across her body, the mutilated body of a rabbit appears on her doorstep, the name of one her companions remains elusive no matter how many times she interacts with the woman, teeth come up in detail again and again in a way that made me sure someone’s mouth was going to be removed by the end of the story. Still, despite the cloying, ominous environment that Machado establishes, the story’s conclusion was nothing like what I expected.

Horror in Machado’s work doesn’t come in the form of a disgruntled ancestor, or a monster on the hunt, or a dispassionate alien abductor. Instead it comes in the lingering look of a suspicious friend, the insistence on the part of a husband that his wife have no secrets, the realization that one’s doppelgänger is out in the world, living a more perfect version of one’s own life. Horror is something to be lived with, worked through, either accepted or confronted. Machado is able to levy the every day cruelties that we heap upon one another and give them the narrative weight that turns them into menacing signs of what awaits on the next page.

The trouble then is that Machado doesn’t even need to imbed a monster within the stories’ conclusions. The signs she uses are self-referential. The horror is the act of living. In her stories, Machado reveals that to be alive and conversant, especially for a woman in our society, is to live already in a sort of horror story, one in which the people around you are suspicious of your motives, your feelings, your dreams. To be a woman in the world of these stories is to feel something looming even when everyone around you asserts that everything is fine, that your fear is unfounded. In this way Machado’s work feels truer than anything I’ve ever read, she’s able to pull something deep, spiritual and wondrous out of the banality of the every day. As heartbreaking as Her Body and Other Parties is, it is equally important. Each time the stories in the collection refuse to flinch away from the uncomfortable truths they encounter, they demand that the reader, too, look into that horror, no matter how small, and acknowledge it. The compassion this book demands is extraordinary, and it’s exactly what the world needs.

If there must be a drawback to Machado’s work then it is this: It pains me that there is not yet a vast library of Machado’s work for me to seek out, there is no long list of books for me to track down. I, and hopefully you, will have to wait, counting the days until this extraordinary writer gives us another glimpse into her mind.

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