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.