Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Short story collections are often hit or miss for me. Particularly when they’re the collected works of a single author: I often find myself rooting for said author to do well with each new story even as I’m quietly disappointed by the sum of the collection. This is especially true for writing that’s critically lauded as being “literary”, most of which I find deeply dull or, at best, pedestrian. I often wonder at how sheltered critics must be who rhapsodize over incredibly tedious short stories about interior lives and impressionistic emotions as being somehow novel or undiscovered. It genuinely makes me wonder how much reading these critics actually do otherwise, and makes me want to shove a copy of any Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling edited anthology into their hands. And writers, if you feel the need to write a literary short story, tell it in a way that doesn’t make me roll my eyes like a know-it-all teenager. I want to be impressed. I want to love your story. And if you’re sure you only need to use a short story and not a novel to tell me your tale, tell me something complete unto itself.

Fortunately, Her Body And Other Parties doesn’t evoke my brattiest behavior but it’s still not as good, I feel, as the hype would have me believe. I honestly didn’t care that much for the critically lauded The Husband Stitch because, while the parts about the narrator’s marriage and family were quite entertaining, the inclusion of the green ribbon was a metaphor that wasn’t properly explained. What in the actual hell was the green ribbon supposed to signify? I’m surmising that it means a woman is allowed her secrets and interior motivations, but the ending, while mirroring the source material, winds up having the exact emotional impact of said source material to anyone who’s decades removed from the first time they heard this story: a sense of profound unsurprisedness. Like, what is the point?! Don’t just borrow the story for the sensationalist frisson, do something with it. Sure it’s got more gravitas because of all the filled-in family stuff, but I didn’t actually care any more about the protagonist than I did the woman in the original.

I suppose I could put this down to me just not being smart enough for this book, but I continued to find myself baffled by Carmen Maria Machado’s use of metaphor and technique throughout the collection. Inventory, I thought, was a strong entry because things actually happened in it that didn’t leave me going “what just happened?” Mothers was great until the ending that made no sense. As was… actually, most of these stories had endings that were incredibly weak. The coda to The Resident was some nauseatingly self-indulgent nonsense, and again, nothing was explained. Eight Bites was pretty great till its nonsensical ending. Real Women Have Bodies only works if you believe the narrator is an asshole who thinks it’s okay to tell other women how to survive, but given her sympathetic rendering otherwise, I’m pretty sure Ms Machado is okay with said narrator’s holier-than-thou bullshit. Especially Heinous has a terrific premise but just goes on and on, flogging a dead horse well into paste. I did like Difficult At Parties a lot, so that makes two outstanding stories of the eight, and six that had great imagery or ideas but just seemed to fall flat at the finish line.

It’s weird, part of the reason I thought I might like this “literary” collection is the fact that it’s rooted in some deeply weird horror/sci-fi, and as a feminist, I fully support stories of women owning/exploring their sexuality and asserting their agency/personhood. But either the finish on these stories is poor or I’m just not smart enough to figure out what the point of those six stories were, as you may choose.

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