“Interesting/uneven” – Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Hmmm. That’s the one word review of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body & Other Parties. The other reviews of the book we’ve looked at place themselves at various points on a range that is essentially, Machado is an interesting writer but the collection is somewhat uneven. Some reviews are, like, Machado is a really interesting writer and, yeah,  you could say the book is uneven if you want to split hairs but let’s focus on what an interesting writer she is and some reviews are more Yes, Machado is interesting, no doubt, but boy o boy is this collection uneven. So you can see where it tilts along the interesting/uneven axis. On top of that little seesaw (which it’s worth having in your mind if you’re thinking of approaching the book) is the fact that some people are absolutely blown away by Her Body & Other Parties (see the Financial Times’ review quoted in the paperback, ridiculously proclaiming “Machado stands alongside Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood…”, as if Her Body & Other Parties is so good it rivals all of Jackson and Atwood’s combined work…).

First of all, then, what is there to like? Well, there are good stories here, stories that work viewed close (in terms of the words that make the sentences) and from 10,000 feet (in terms of the narrative structure). Her Body & Other Parties opens with a double whammy – ‘The Husband Stitch’ and ‘Inventory’ are both pretty damn great. The former is an up to the minute riff on Anna Kierstead’s ‘The Green Ribbon’ with fiercely arch reader instructions thrown in for good measure, the latter basically a list of shags set against a growing contagion. Each of these stories are formally experimental, clever, funny, readable and shocking. Imagine a slightly more academic Kelly Link and you won’t go far wrong.

Then we have a story (‘Mothers’) that isn’t quite as good but, at this point, only in an ‘ah this story isn’t quite as good as the previous two, never mind, that’s to be expected in a short story collection’ sort of way. Part of the problem comes through in the difficulty of explaining just what happens (there’s a woman, her most recent lover turns up at the door with a baby they made together – the first hint of the uncanny in the fact that two women made a baby together through sheer force of will – and we see their love alongside our narrator’s difficulties looking after a new baby; then there is a trip, a house, a little girl of ten or eleven and – honestly, I couldn’t tell you how the story resolves itself). ‘Mothers’ is followed by ‘Especially Heinous’, a story subtitled: ‘272 Views of Law & Order: SVU‘, which runs like a slightly extended TV Go Home skit, with an episode by episode breakdown of 12 seasons of Law & Order. ‘Especially Heinous’ left me cold and, at almost 60 pages… well, that’s a lot of pages to be left cold for. Machado has said, “no television show inadvertently and surreally captures our cultural relationship with violence, gender and sex more than the American crime procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” And that’s as may be. And the story certainly explores all of those areas. But it could have been four pages or four hundred and would cumulatively have had the same effect. It feels like a dry formal experiment, the product of a classroom. What’s more, because ‘Especially Heinous’ takes you over the half way point in the collection, suddenly you’re reading a book that you don’t get along with.

Of the remaining four stories, one is good (‘Eight bites’ concerns the after effects of a of a culinary surgery) and three have good set-ups that culminate in mumbled punchlines (imagine a stand-up comedian telling a joke, the set–up hooks you in, you’re smiling because you think hey, this is pretty good, and then the punchline is mumbled or fluffed or rushed and you think, ah, what a shame). First there is ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, which concerns a fashion outlet called Glam that gradually reveals itself to sow what’s left of transparent women into the hems of their garments (women are becoming transparent in a Back to the Future polaroid sort of way). It works on one level as an academic exercise about the draw of fashion (even when the transparent women are freed, “they don’t move, they never move”)… but the “why should I care?” never resolves itself. ‘The Resident’ (the second longest story in the book after ‘Especially Heinous’) concerns a somewhat antisocial young woman at a writer’s retreat (struggling with the book she is writing, feeling ill, missing her wife) – and it is good almost all of the way through until the end when it just deflates in a puddle of wet balloon and you think, all that for that? This leapt out at us:

“In the realm of sense and reason it seemed logical for something to make sense for no reason (natural order) or not make sense for some reason (the deliberate design of deception) but it seemed perverse to have things make no sense for no reason.”

Finally we have ‘Difficult at Parties’, in which the victim of a hinted-at aggression tries to come to terms with what happened to her, discovering (as she attempts to revive what might be a relationship – it isn’t always clear) that she can hear the thoughts of porn actors as they go about their business, much to the chagrin of the young man who keeps coming to see her. It’s like a superpower – this hearing the thoughts of porn actors during sex – and of course she comes to turn it on her own life in a pursuit of some objective truth.

All told, then, Her Body & Other Parties left this reader feeling the way you do when you’ve just walked away from a meeting with a person you’ve not met before who all of your friends have said you’re going to get along with like a house on fire (so you’re expectations were high) – and for whatever reason you didn’t quite. You read and you take some of the blame on yourself for not liking what you’re reading as much as you think you should. However you cut it, though, it isn’t a book you entirely get along with and, as such, it’s not a book you’d entirely recommend.

Any Cop?: Like the Grand Old Duke of York and his ten thousand men, this is a book that finds itself in the impossible position of being neither half way up nor half way down.

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