A little over a year ago, I saw an image on the artist E. Jane’s Twitter feed that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. Two purple tulips hover, stemless, against a lavender background on either side of an all-caps sentence: “queer as in another world is possible.” The quote is from Carolyn Chou, an activist and organizer based in Massachusetts.
It’s a forward-looking proposal, evoking a desire to dream and build rather than to destroy. There’s a science-fiction element to it, too, as though another, more perfect world lies within our grasp, if only we could build the right rocket ship to get there. It can also be read as a summons to see what’s in front of our eyes. The maxim speaks to a kind of queer mode of being that has emerged in recent years, as a generation of organizers, artists, musicians, and writers explores different ways of constructing the world.
It’s not hard to feel as though our current world isn’t worth salvaging, and that we might be better off finding—or at least imagining—another. Into this political and artistic moment arrives Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short-fiction collection, Her Body and Other Parties. It consists of seven short stories and one novella, “Especially Heinous,” a 60-page riff on the tropes and structure of Law & Order: SVU episodes. The stories range across a variety of topics, from the remix of a children’s horror tale (“The Husband Stitch”) to the fable about weight-loss surgery (“Eight Bites”), but have as their through-line a particular queer and feminist politics, situated within genre-friendly, distinctly eerie plots. Women melt into thin air; ghosts of dead girls have bells for eyes; and an unclassifiable epidemic creeps across a near-future dystopian America.
Machado’s style, mannered at times but always fluidly readable, is marked by its earnestness. Throughout the text, there’s the sense that the emotions of her narrators have been laid bare, with hardly an armature to cover them. There’s no doubt that her narrators say exactly what they mean—in “The Husband Stitch,” the collection’s knockout opening story, the protagonist asserts: “In the beginning, I know I want him before he does. This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them.” And for the rest of the story, the narrator delivers on that promise.
Though they live in confusing landscapes, we can trust Machado’s protagonists—all women, all queer. Through their eyes and voices, we experience their strange worlds in as pure a translation as possible; more importantly, we root for them, too. Here, a close kinship with genre fiction gives Machado’s stories the dramatic oomph they need to be successful as works of fiction. The conflict and tension that psychological literary fiction might traditionally offer through unreliable narrators or intense interiority is, in Her Body, provided by the extraordinary circumstances of the stories’ worlds themselves, and by the way the characters must deal with them. Propelled by plot, formal decisions (as in the excellent “Inventory,” constructed as a list and with a wonderful twist ending), and thoughtful world-building, the stories rely less on the method of the telling; language becomes aerodynamic, giving little resistance to the movements of plot and form.
In “The Husband Stitch,” the story’s drama stems from a neatly constructed conceit and the trouble that it stirs: the ribbon. In the world of the story, all women are born with one, each in a different location; the ribbon is both a gift and a death curse, an intensely private burden made visible upon the body of its subject. The narrator’s ribbon is tied around her neck, green and glossy (the first of many references to Machado’s source that, given new import, enliven the text). For the narrator, it’s a constant part of her life, something to be both feared and protected; for her husband, it’s an object of curiosity and a kind of forbidden fruit. From the outset, the carnal desire between the narrator and her husband serves as the foundation for the story. “The Husband Stitch” drips with sex; time is marked by bouts of lovemaking. It’s a mutual desire, we’re assured, but one that’s uneven in its stakes. Though her husband wants nothing more than to touch her ribbon, to untie it, the narrator decides to withhold it from him.
The ribbon, we learn, is more than just a horror-story convention. Over the course of “The Husband Stitch,” the ribbons on the bodies of women come to symbolize a number of things: the private, interior knowledge that all women share; a burden of the body that also binds women together; and a fatal weakness of sorts. When the narrator’s son is born, he at first treats the ribbon as though it were a natural part of her body: “It gives him delight in a way that houses no wanting, and this pleases me,” she says. But as he grows older, that innocence is lost; he too becomes a man, in the way of his father: “The next day, our son touches my throat and asks about my ribbon. He tries to pull at it. And though it pains me, I have to make it forbidden to him…. Something is lost between us, and I never find it again.”
In taking the conceit of the ribbon and turning it into a kind of political symbolism, Machado expands the narrative possibilities of a merely spooky premise. Of course, as with the original story of the girl with the green ribbon, we see the end coming. But before then, the narrator observes: “I am up for a long time listening to his breathing, wondering if perhaps men have ribbons that do not look like ribbons. Maybe we are all marked in some way, even if it’s impossible to see.” As in the other stories, the anxieties that Machado explores—around sexism, power, beauty, and lust—are given shape and form not through intricate literary devices, but through straightforward physical world-building conceits, which often play out upon the bodies of her characters.
At times, the writing in Her Body feels uneven—to someone with little investment in Law & Order: SVU, for example, “Especially Heinous,” while ambitious, feels like 60 pages of dead weight in the middle of the collection—and Machado’s sentences and imagery can border on the sentimental, even twee. In the story “Mothers,” she devotes a long paragraph to the imagined feasts of modern-day saints, including the “Feast of the Poets, during which Mary Oliver is recited over beds of lettuce, Kay Ryan over a dish of vinegar and oil, Audre Lorde over cucumbers, Elizabeth Bishop over some carrots,” and the “Exaltation of Patricia Highsmith, celebrated with escargots boiling in butter and garlic and cliffhangers recited by an autumn fire….”
On my first read, I almost put the book down right there. Was there a better way that such a fantasy should have been wrought, a depiction sufficiently shamed for its optimism? And did I truly believe that admiration needed to be tempered by shame—that the rituals of the protagonist were too corny, too sincere, too utopian? Indeed, there’s no shame in Machado’s writing. One suspects that she simply doesn’t have the pessimism to make her visions small—thereby unburdening the reader of the ugliness of the world we inhabit, in exchange for a hopeful queer utopia. Machado’s writing hinges on the expectations that it sets for the reader. It stumps if the reader is unwilling to give up her real-world cynicism; it thrills if she’s just as earnest and open as Machado is.
In a departure from narratives about the traumatic origins or circumstances of queerness—as in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or even Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, two standout novels in recent years—the plots of Machado’s stories aren’t driven by the sexual desires or romantic foibles of her characters. The romantic relationships in Her Body are, for the most part, secure, warm, and loving. The characters aren’t tortured by their conflict with heteronormativity; instead, heteronormative culture feels like merely an afterthought. Hints at the characters’ queerness are scattered throughout the stories like grace notes—it’s not a quality that must be glorified loudly. Desire, when wielded as a weapon, is inflected by feminist politics but never turns against itself; no character is wounded by her own wants, as has historically been the trend in gay and lesbian fiction.
This makes Her Body a refreshing—and provocative—read, one in which queerness is at the center of the text, but not viewed through the lens of pain or trauma. Sex is richly described but, in many cases, happily uncomplicated—and lushly joyful as a result. “I come fast and hard, like a bottle breaking against a brick wall. Like I’ve been waiting for permission,” the young narrator of “Real Women Have Bodies” tells us, at the beginning of her romance with the sullen, charismatic Petra. Thankfully, that romance isn’t the source of the conflict in the story; it’s that women have been inexplicably fading into ghosts, and Petra, they find, will soon be among them.
The plots in Her Body don’t hinge on the existence of oppressive power structures, perhaps with the exception of “The Husband Stitch,” which can be seen as a critique of masculine entitlement run amok. Throughout the text, queerness is celebrated, represented, and, best of all, hardly treated as “other.” It’s this ordinariness that leads me to suggest that Machado is reminding us another world is possible. What would it take, and what would we have to believe about ourselves, in order to arrive there?