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Rebecca Rand

Between the Grotesque and the Real: ‘Her Body and Other Parties’ by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other PartiesHer Body and Other Parties (Graywolf; 241 pages) by Carmen Maria Machado, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, lives up to the critical acclaim it has accrued. This collection of stories utilizes elements of gothic, speculative, and horror fiction to examine life in a female body and its relationship to sex, food, disease, and the supernatural.

Following horror tradition, objects carry great significance here. The first story, “The Husband Stitch,” was inspired by Alvin Schwartz’s children’s horror story “The Green Ribbon,” in which a woman relies on a green choker to keep her head attached to the rest of her body. Machado’s rendition follows this green-ribboned woman’s relationship with her husband, whose curious fingers constantly mess with the ribbon—trying to slip under it or untie it. The woman, dismayed by this invasion, asks him to let her have this one thing, this one secret. But he cannot.

Machado’s use of horror amplifies the bizarre pains, joys, and restrictions women face. In “Eight Bites,” a woman’s basement is haunted by her old body after she undergoes gastric bypass surgery. When the narrator confronts her former self, it is a soft, helpless ghoul: “It is just a body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth. Just soft indents. I crouch down and stroke its shoulder, or what I think is its shoulder. It turns and looks at me. It has no eyes, but still, it looks at me. She looks at me. She is awful but honest. She is grotesque but she is real.”

“Real Women Have Bodies” is a speculative piece which imagines a world where, for no discernable reason, some women start “going incorporeal,” becoming more transparent and permeable until they are essentially nothing. Sex is an important component of this story, as the main characters struggle to hold onto their bodily joy while they still can. (“I come fast and hard,” the narrator says, “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall”). Some of the vanished women, entirely dematerialized, allow themselves to be sewn into the lining of prom dresses. In Machado’s work, emotions materialize and materials become embedded with emotions.

She also has a fascination with pandemics, which she explores in not just “Real Women Have Bodies” but elsewhere. “Inventory” recalls a modern viral plague through one woman’s detailed list of her sexual encounters. The threat of disease hangs heavy over these women as they try to live their lives with as much happiness (and as many orgasms) as they can get away with before being swallowed up by death or disappearance.

Many of Machado’s characters are haunted. “The Resident” tells the story of an artist in residency at a rural mansion who cannot shake off the abuse she experienced as an adolescent at the hands of her fellow Girl Scouts. In “Difficult at Parties,” a woman tries to get over a terrible sexual trauma by watching porn, and realizes she can hear the thoughts of the characters in the films. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” takes the notion of a haunting to the next level: after watching Law & Order straight through with a high fever, Machado was inspired to synopsize an SVU from a parallel universe, where the same characters are plagued by doppelgangers and victims of “especially heinous” crimes, including ghost girls with bells for eyes. “She stands over Benson’s bed, the right bell tinkling faintly, and then the left, and then the right again,” Mochado writes. “This happens four nights in a row, at 2:07 am. Benson starts sleeping with a crucifix and pungent ropes of garlic, because she does not understand the difference between vampires and murdered teenagers. Not yet.”

By taking to its ultimate (and extreme) conclusion the significance of inhabiting a female body, Machado makes the supernatural and madness feel eerily familiar.

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Family in the Wild: ‘A Loving, Faithful Animal’ by Josephine Rowe

A Loving, Faithful AnimalAfter the recent death of a beloved family pet, I was looking forward to reading something sweet and poignant. A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult; 176 pages) by Josephine Rowe promptly disabused me of any such hope. The titular loving, faithful animal is ripped to shreds in the first few pages.

Rowe’s book, set in a small town in Australia, radiates with a sense of danger, but not in the expected ways; it’s not concerned with being wickedly subversive or delivering an emotional sucker-punch. It’s a family story, narrated in several parts by five family members. The premise is simple: an abusive father leaves his family, perhaps for good. The ecosystem of domestic abuse it reveals is not unfamiliar—Father is haunted by the Vietnam War (about 60,000 Australians served in that conflict), and beats his wife, who beats on her daughter Lani, who in turn manipulates and harasses her sister, Ru. The eccentric Uncle Tetch maintains a benovelent existence in the background, fixing bikes and radios and attempting to protect the women of the house from his brother. Ru, whose second-person narration bookends the novel, wonders about the universality of her family’s strife: Are all family scripts so interchangeable?

The sense of danger comes from the way Rowe, a former Stegner Fellow now living in Tasmania, weaves this family’s ecosystem into the wider southeast Australian wilderness, lending the story a feeling of urgency and rawness. Every time you settle into the familiar narrative of suburban linoleum depression, a spider the size of a hand crawls across the ceiling. In this book characters can’t go for a walk without crunching cicada husks beneath their shoes, pass a fence without seeing a strung-up fox (both a trophy and a warning), or hear gunshots without wondering if someone finally got the giant black cat that’s been stalking the area.

Rowe doesn’t use quotation marks, so dialogue blends into characters’ thoughts and descriptions of the environment. This stylistic choice, rather than muting the dialogue, turns the ambient volume up: the crunches, crackles, and gunshots. What people say and think in Rowe’s book is punctuated by the sharp sounds of the parched world around them, a world just waiting to burst into bushfire. Speech is similarly sharp: the family speaks in short phrases laden with Australian twang. Skinny as a whippet–you could put your hands like this around my waist–and just that fast. Tenderness emerges amid the harshness of their dialogue. The mother, cooing to a pair of angora rabbits as she tries to gently comb tangles and burrs out of their hair: I should just shave the two of you. I should knit jumpers out of you little dolts. That’d be something.

A Loving, Faithful Animal is the story of a family trying to rediscover their identity after the abusive presence they once molded themselves around has disappeared. Rowe depicts her characters searching in the wake of their former selves for the moments, objects, and places they can use to construct their new identities. Rowe’s way of emphasizing the landscape to express her characters’ inner worlds proves both contemplative and thrilling.

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