This collection of short stories by Carmen Maria Machado is a work of ambition. That it falters, at points, doesn’t detract from the heights it reaches at others. Any work of ambition is a risk, and the entire collection of Her Body and Other Parties is most certainly a risk. The stories are absurd, magic, real, feminist, jolting, soothing, familiar, and ground-breaking all at once.
This collection was a bookstore read. That’s what I like to call books that I’ve never heard of before stumbling upon them in a bookstore display (the Politics and Prose bookstores in DC have a fabulously-curated display). Something about the cover drew me in — the green ribbon you will recognize as soon as you finish the first story, though I still haven’t quite worked out if the red figure is a woman or a neck or something entirely different.
I’ve read many criticisms of these stories that bemoan the feminism woven into the story telling. I’m honestly not sure what to make of that kind of criticism. It’s a book about women living lives as women and experiencing the world as women and it is written by a woman. Is feminism something other than that? Can feminism be extricated from that? Well, I guess in the era of alternative facts, anything is possible. But living as a woman isn’t a statement; it’s a state of being.
Not to say some of the criticism isn’t deserved. There is one story in particular that grated and wore on my nerves like a too-long movie that stretched on past my bedtime. “Especially Heinous,” which chronicles fictitious characters drawn from Law and Order: SVU, is, in my opinion, the greatest misstep of the collection. The story is easily the longest in the collection, and Machado insists on dragging it on for multiple seasons. It became so rote that I actually put the book down for a few days to contemplate whether I wanted to finish this particular story or skip ahead to the next one. Now, this is from someone who has loyally watched all 3 million seasons of the actual Law & Order: SVU…and I would gladly do it again before having to read this short story over.
Still, I can appreciate everything Machado has done, tried to do, and even failed to do here. I felt, at some points, as if my own ribbon was slowly being undone with the truth of her writing. I never would have even known to call it a ribbon without her insight. Machado allows women to see themselves in new ways and everyone else to, well, stand by and watch.