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text 2018-11-29 12:01
"Her Body & Other Parties - third story - Mothers" by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

"Mothers" is a story the reader has to work at. I fell in love with the imagery and the language of this story as I was swept along in a tide of allegory that I didn't understand.

I could see the shadows of huge, intense emotions swimming beneath and watched truisms flash in the light as, like me, they skimmed the surface but I wasn't able to turn what I read into a narrative.

 

So I read it a second time, putting aside my expectation that this was a story with a beginning, a middle and an end and let myself take it in as a sort of kaleidoscope of memories, lit by longing.

 

It seems to me that this story is partly a lament for what might have been and partly an attempt to come to terms with grief.

 

The narrator tells, in a non-linear way, of her experience falling in love with, living with and then losing a woman she calls "Bad". Bad is exciting, unconventional, attentive, demanding, dominant and verbally, and eventually physically, abusive. In her grief at losing Bad, the narrator imagines/hallucinates/fantasizes that Bad has given birth to their baby and then left it with the narrator to raise. I believe the baby represents the relationship she and Bad might have had if they had been able to stay together. 

 

Beneath this narrative, there seems to be a reflection on what it means to be a mother, what mothering means and the conflicting emotions of love, anger, fear, despair and guilt that being a mother provokes.

 

Near the start of the story, these themes of abusive relationship and the nature of motherhood twist around one another in a scene where Bad presents the unexpected and apparently miraculously conceived baby.  After handing the baby to the narrator, Bad says:

“I was pregnant. Now there’s a baby. She’s yours.” My brain doubles back on the sentence. For months, my head has been so fuzzy. Mail is stacked unread on my kitchen table, and my clothes are a giant mound on my once-immaculate floor. My uterus contracts in protest, confused.

The narrator's confusion makes wonder if Bad or the baby is there or if they are the product of the narrator's grief after the ending of their relationship.

The next exchange is a hint at Bad's narcissistic dominance of the narrator:

 “Look,” Bad says. “There’s only so much that I can do. I can’t do any more than that. Right?” I agree, but something feels wrong about following her down this line of reasoning. Dangerous. “You can only do as much as you can do,” I repeat anyway.

Immediately before Bad abandons the narrator and the baby, she gives a wonderful summary of the challenges of raising a baby.

“Good,” Bad says. “When the baby cries, she could be hungry or thirsty or angry or cranky or sick or sleepy or paranoid or jealous or she had planned something but it went horribly awry. So you’ll need to take care of that, when it happens.”

I found only one declaration from the narrator:

I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.

This leads me to the idea that the baby, or the idea of the baby, is a product of the narrator's desire to believe in the impossible and to "outdo nature".

 

This tendency to superimpose the desired world over the real surfaces immediately after the physical abuse that ends the relationship. The injured narrator has locked herself in the bathroom and stood under the shower, imagining a life with Bad and their child but imagination is not enough:

"Then the not-memory washed away like a wet painting in a storm, and I was in the shower, shaking, and she was outside, losing me, and there was no way for me to tell her not to. There was no way for me to tell her that we are so close, we are so close, please don’t do this now, we are so fucking close."

The ending of the story still escapes me. We move on from one baby to two children Mara and her brother and all the anxieties they bring. We seem to have a slide into guilt and remorse but it could also be self-pity as the narrator hears a voice inside her saying:

"There was nothing tying you to her and you made it anyway, you made them anyway, fuck you, you made them anyway. To Mara and her brother, I say: Stop running, you’ll fall, stop running, you’ll break something, stop running, your mother will see, she will see and she will be so angry and she will yell and we cannot, we cannot, I cannot. I say: Don’t leave the faucet on. You’ll flood the house, don’t do it, you promised it would never happen again. Don’t flood the house, the bills, don’t flood the house, the rugs, don’t flood the house, my loves, or we could lose you both. We’ve been bad mothers and have not taught you how to swim."

I'm not sure what the swimming means. 

 

So I have a beautifully written story with bright fragments of pain and hope and joy that keep shifting as I look at them. This seems to be an invitation to collaborate with the writer to discover or perhaps create meaning. 

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text 2018-05-23 22:27
“Her Body And Other Parties – second story: Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

 

"Her Body And Other Parties" is such a rich collection that I'm reviewing it one story at a time, mostly to enhance my enjoyment and understanding of these stories.

 

Inventory

 

"Inventory", the second story in this collection, is about thirteen pages long and fine example of the fact that short stories, even ones as short as this are not literary snacks that you consume between novels. This story has a dense mass to it that lodged in my imagination, demanding attention and thought. I read it twice, not because I didn't understand it the first time but because there is so much there that once just wasn't enough to absorb it. I don't think twice was either. I'll be coming back to this one.

 

So what is it that has me so engaged?

 

I found the style of the storytelling hypnotic, It is presented as an inventory of encounters with always-nameless lovers: men and woman singly or in combinations. Each encounter starts with a sentence inventorying who was involved in addition to the narrator: "One girl." "One boy, one girl", "Two boys, one girl". The next sentence often qualifies the inventory "One boy, one girl. My friends" or "Two boys, one girl. One of them my boyfriend." Then there is a description of where the encounter took place: "We drank stolen wine coolers in my room." or "His parents were out of town, so we threw a party at his house." The sex and its attendant affection, ecstasy, disappointment, mess, betrayal, solace or regret are described with a rhythm that documents the moment neutrally but in a way that is neither sterile nor erotic but deeply human and often sad.

As the encounters passed I got caught up in trying to understand the pattern they were making, trying to discover the lesson being taught. There was no pattern except accumulated experience and more informed choice and no lessons being taught, just a life being lived.

 

Life is not lived in a vacuum and this life is lived against the background of the outbreak of a global pandemic that destroys most of the population. In other stories, the pandemic would BE the story. We'd have a valiant against-the-odds struggle between man and bacteria, end-of-the-world symbolism, violence. conflict and heroism. "Inventory" is not that story. Its focus stays firmly on the encounters the woman has. The pandemic appears in the death of partners or the change of circumstances and choices but it never takes centre stage. Curiously, perhaps, this makes the pandemic much more sinister and threatening.

 

By the end of the story, it seemed to me that our narrator, faced with the possible end of days, has inventoried her own life. So what does it mean that there are no names, not even the narrator's own? Or that there are no encounters other than with lovers, however inept or opportunistic? Or that the narrator remains, always, fundamentally alone?

 

Answering those questions is the job of the reader. Asking them so that they demand an answer, or several answers is the job of the writer.

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text 2018-02-10 23:51
Reading progress update: I've read 14%. "The Husband Stitch" - the first story
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

I've read the first story in this collection and I can see that this is going to be a remarkable reading experience: challenging, engrossing and perhaps a little unnerving.

 

I can also see that I need to review it one story at a time. So here's my review of the first story (about thirty-five pages long).

 

The Husband Stitch

"The Husband Stitch" showed me that stories are dangerous. Its muscular form squirms in my imagination's grasp, sleek and slick but with razor-sharp edges that slice and make me gasp with surprise.

 

This is a story filled with other stories, stories that you will half-recognise and half be surprised by. Stories that make you ask yourself what it tells us about the world that we all know these stories? Are they lessons? Warnings? Truths? Myths? Desires? Whatever they are, they persist and they have power.

 

At one point the teller of the tale (who never shares her name and who says that she has been telling stories all her life, says:

"When you think about it, stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart."

Her stories are all about women and the things that happen to them, few of them good and they power her own story, which is a story and not a documentary and therefore holds meaning but does not always release it easily. 

 

She is a passionate woman, who chooses her boy at a party at the age of seventeen and then gives herself to him and teaches him how to use what he's been given. She becomes first a lover, then a bride ("Brides", she tells us, "never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle."), then a wife and a mother.

Years pass and the only thing she withholds from her husband is the right to touch the green ribbon that is always tied around her throat.

 

The ribbon is the heart of this story. You'll have to decide for yourself what it means.  I believe it represents identity. The part of her that makes her who she is. The part that she cannot be without. Yet, in this story, only women have ribbons.

 

If the story has a moral (as opposed to having many or even a different one depending on who reads it) then I think it is about the inevitable destruction wrought by husbands on wives. I think the "Husband Stitch" of the title is an extra stitch that husbands ask the doctor to add when sewing up an episiotomy wound, to make the vagina tighter, almost virginal. This selfish re-shaping speaks to male arrogance and a refusal to accept their wives in their true forms.

 

In the story, her refusal to let him touch her ribbon becomes a source of strife:

“A wife,” he says, “should have no secrets from her husband.”

“I don’t have any secrets,” I tell him.

“The ribbon.”

“The ribbon is not a secret; it’s just mine.” “

Were you born with it? Why your throat? Why is it green?”

I do not answer.

Her husband, she tells us, "...is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep dis-service to him. And yet-"

 

That "And yet?" is where this story and all the stories within it, take us. It is a place both mysterious and sadly familiar. It is how things are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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review 2018-01-06 22:53
A book of stories about the female experience with a powerful voice
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

I finally read this celebrated book, and it’s quite a read. It’s all at once devastating, complicated, weird, queer, scary, sometimes funny, and the writing was always beautiful. Machado has written about the female experience in a number of different stories, some I enjoyed vastly more than others, some captivating me, a couple dragged on a bit. But this is unlike anything I’ve read before. A book YOU should probably all read! 

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review 2017-12-22 00:00
Her Body and Other Parties
Her Body and Other Parties - Carmen Mari... Her Body and Other Parties - Carmen Maria Machado Beautifully written with great imagination, restraint, and originality. Can't wait to read more from this author.
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