Books

book review

Debut stories about women, power, and pleasure bewitch — and draw buzz

“Her Body and Other Parties” is Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection.

Tom Storm Photography

“Her Body and Other Parties” is Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection.

T

he heroine of Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Resident,” a slice of gothic horror dusted with comedy, is an author who’s won a slot at a famous artists’ colony. At her lakeside cabin, she fantasizes about her literary stardom to come:

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“Sometimes, I sat on the porch and gave imaginary interviews to NPR personalities. ‘When I write, I feel like I’m being hypnotized,’ I told Terry Gross. ‘It was at that moment I knew everything was going to change,’ I told Ira Glass.”

For Machado — whose bewitching debut collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” includes “The Resident” — such a moment would seem to be now. Written in prose so textured that you want to rub her phrases between your fingertips, the book is a finalist for the $50,000 Kirkus Prize and a nominee for the National Book Award.

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The first of its eight stories is “The Husband Stitch,” and I defy you not to want to devour the whole collection based solely on its opening lines, which Machado presents like stage directions:

“If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices:

“ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.

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“THE BOY WHO WILL GROW INTO A MAN, AND BE MY SPOUSE: robust with serendipity.”

These two unnamed characters have a fairy-tale romance, though the fairy tale, alas, is the kind that ends in grisliness. It begins with young lust, though, and lots of sex. There is bliss in their relationship, and in the little family they make when they have a son.

To her husband, the wife lays down only one condition, the one thing on her person that he mustn’t touch: the green ribbon tied around her neck. He tests and tests that boundary. “Brides never fare well in stories,” we are told, and so it goes.

A muscular strain of feminism runs through this book, whose contemplation of the female body is bound up in sex, power, pleasure, pain, and the fitful struggle against self-loathing.

Rarely is a writer as skilled as Machado at evoking corporeality: the myriad sensations of inhabiting flesh and bone, with all its messiness and ecstasies. Sex plays a major part in these stories, and she excels at potent depictions that sidestep the ick factor so many authors find difficult to avoid.

“Inventory,” in fact, is nothing but a detailed list of the narrator’s sexual partners, with no names but plenty of commentary. “One woman,” an entry begins. “Blond hair, brash voice, friend of a friend. We married. I’m still not sure if I was with her because I wanted to be or because I was afraid of what the world was catching all around us.”

As it builds, “Inventory” reveals itself as an end-of-the-world story: a chronicle of sex during a creeping pandemic, pitting the primal urge for physical connection against the instinct for self-preservation.

A different mysterious contagion wreaks fear and despair in the eerie, unsettling “Real Women Have Bodies” in which women begin fading bit by bit, increasingly wraithlike until they’re almost not there at all. The plot is so strange and mesmerizing that I wanted it to be a story cycle, a novel, a TV series — something more.

In the hallucinatory “Mothers,” the narrator is out of her senses with longing for her awful ex-girlfriend when the ex herself arrives to drop off an infant she says is biologically both of theirs. “My uterus contracts in protest, confused,” the narrator reports.

The collection’s bulkiest story has its wordiest title, too: “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ ” It’s like an extra dark Shouts & Murmurs column from The New Yorker, but ill-advisedly super-sized — an episode-by-episode riff spanning 12 seasons.

“Difficult at Parties,” by contrast, is a portrait of trauma in miniature: a woman’s attempt, after a sexual assault, to heal her battered body and terrorized mind and return to something close to normal, even if she can’t quite recall what that was.

One of the most gorgeous stories is “Eight Bites,” set on Cape Cod, where a woman who watches her sisters turn slender after bariatric surgery decides to get the procedure herself.

“Do you hate my body, Mom?” her grown-up daughter asks afterward. “You hated yours, clearly, but mine looks just like yours used to, so —’’ Machado injects a ghostly surreality into this emotional realism, and the result is a stunning dose of poignancy.

This is what she does best, and she does it again and again in this collection: blend disparate, jostling elements to achieve a ferocious alchemy.

HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES

By Carmen Maria Machado

Graywolf, 245 pp., paperback, $16

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.
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