Review by Tessa Yang
In the opening story of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, the narrator, stealing into the woods to have sex with her boyfriend, offers the following reflection: “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.” “Unafraid” is an apt descriptor of Her Body and Other Parties, released yesterday from Graywolf Press. It is a book that pushes back: against literary conventions, against the stigma and silence surrounding queer sensuality. In these eight stories, Machado bulldozes the barriers between sci-fi, fantasy, literary fiction, horror, and erotica, and makes us wonder how we ever could have dreamed of separating them. These are weird, sexy, scary tales that thrum at the electrifying junction of fear and desire. Women with faded bodies dwell inside prom dresses. A writer attends a much-anticipated artist residency, only to be haunted by mysterious illness and the traumatic memory of a childhood summer. After surviving a sexual assault, a woman cannot watch pornography without hearing the despondent, pleading thoughts of the actors on screen. In each of these stories, we encounter new iterations of the female body that are at once otherworldly and recognizable.
A number of Machado’s stories also exemplify a formal inventiveness that adds to their strange appeal. “Especially Heinous” will pique the interest of any fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; the story is told through fictive summaries of the police procedural’s first twelve seasons, but in Machado’s ghostly version, Detectives Benson and Stabler must grapple with doppelgangers, girls-with-bells-for-eyes, and a city with a real heartbeat. “Inventory” likewise subverts expectations through form, presenting a narrator who methodically details her past sexual encounters while humankind succumbs to a deadly infection. Thus the usual apocalyptic tropes are sidestepped; the tale is part elegy, part celebration of queer love and desire.
A mix of pleasure and danger infiltrates all of Machado’s stories, making for a read that was always surprising. I did not know how these tales would turn, or when. There are moments where terror feels romantic, where humor blisters like a burn. Through it all, Machado’s women rage and hunger, triumph and fail. They ruin parties. Most importantly, they speak for themselves. During one scene, a protagonist launches into an angry tirade at a woman who has called her crazy: “This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.” She goes on to accuse the other woman of being “aggressively ordinary”—and in Machado’s splendidly strange universe, it is tough to think of a harsher indictment.