ARTICLE – REVIEW (April 2018)

‘Necessary Stories of Staggering Invention’

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Reviewed by Jon Gower

This collection has won many, many plaudits and arrives draped with so many laurels that it’s a jungle out there. Yet, for once, this is a debut volume that deserves all the praise and more as it fair stuns the reader with the audacity of the talent on display.  Indeed, reading it is akin to that first encounter with, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that feeling that by finishing it one is joining a special club whose members have been allowed to see the world afresh, or enjoyed language itself revivified.  In a nutshell, and just this once, believe the hype.

Legends

Formally there are eight stories to enjoy in Her Body… but in truth there are hundreds of tales spliced into the basic octet – from urban legends through to fragmentary fictions no longer than a sentence to updated fairy tales.  The sheer invention on show here is staggering, as if Carmen Maria Machado has found the very wellspring of fiction and has driven a tanker down there to partake of its waters.

Pulsing

The opening tale, ‘The Husband Stitch’ opens with instructions for reading the story aloud and is a pulsing sex-charged hymn to a woman’s body full of dark echoes of Angela Carter’s fables and an ending to die for.  It is shot through with playfulness, even if it’s serious play. There are games here, for sure, but they’re the adult games people play.

The most substantial piece in the collection – ‘Especially Heinous’ – is so far removed from any definition of a story that you feel you might be encountering a new literary form.  Its subtitle, ‘272 Views of Law & Order: SVU’ is an entry point into a 60 page guide to episodes, capsule synopses if you like of the first twelve seasons of the TV police procedural. 

In one called ‘911’ we hear the voice of the caller and a very weird one at that:  “Look it’s just that I’m walking around feeling like I’m going to vomit out my own toenails, and I want to die, and I want to kill someone, sometimes, and I feel like I’m on the verge of dissolving into a puddle of organs and slop. Organ slop.” A pause.  “Um, that’s–that’s–I’m sorry.  Look, I just called to report a vandal in my neighbourhood.”

This is writing that unsettles, messes with your head, mixing up horror with queer writing with realism with fantasy and steamy oodles of erotica, not forgetting the little touches of sci-fi, myth, new myth and out-and-out invented myth.  Machado manages a daring syncretic resolution between being a synthesist and a complete and utter original as there are stories incorporated here you could swear you’ve read before but they’re not as you first heard them, or even as you now remember them. 

Through its pages you enter a skewed world, one pretty much hanging off its axle but a world almost always bound up in the corporeal realities of the human body and its legion desires and exigencies.  So, in ‘Inventory’ which is precisely that – a list of lovers in recollection – we can taste their skins and palp their lips or encounter a man ‘with a boa constrictor tattoo on his back with a misspelled Latin phrase below it’ or defy a rapine National Guard member even as the story also tells us about the spread of a killing virus throughout the land. 

This is easily one of the most inventive collections of the millennium and the arrival of a literary voice that sounds as if it’s been there all along, since we all started reading.  Which is part of the trick.  She uses known forms of story telling but completely and utterly subverts them.  Then there’s Machado’s imagination, which is a fecund and febrile place and her stories singularly and collectively seem as if they’re necessary for these times of shifting truth and presidential deceits.  We should let the trumpets sound, to welcome this book with congratulatory and uproarious cacophony.  Maybe fireworks too. This is one heck of an arrival, a talent both blaring and unconquerably alive. A brilliant book.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is published by Graywolf Press.

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Reviewer Jon Gower has over thirty books to his name, including Y Storiwr, which won the Wales Book of the Year award, An Island Called Smith, winner of the John Morgan Travel Writing prize and The Story of Wales which accompanied the landmark TV series. He is a former BBC arts and media correspondent and is currently working on a book about the film director Karl Francis.