- Specter of Oppression
Carmen Maria Machado
Pages; Print, $16.00
Near the end of “The Resident,” a long, disquieting, existential horror story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties, the narrator begins to speculate as to what other readers think of her extraordinary tale. “[P]erhaps you’re thinking,” she muses, “that I’m a cliché—a weak, trembling thing with a silly root of adolescent trauma, straight out of a gothic novel.” Her allusion to being a character out of a gothic novel—even if she later disputes this self-reading—is apt, and many of the collection’s stories similarly display, if faintly and not without authorial awareness, the tropes of figures in both low and high gothic fiction. Yet her protagonists—almost uniformly women, and as often as not queer women—are tormented less by the spooks of horror texts than by something perhaps scarier still: abuse. Machado’s women are haunted by harassment, be it from men, unstoppable apocalyptic threats from the world at large, or even, simply, from themselves, whereby their own choices or experiences traumatically haunt them. Her women rarely get to rest; they are haunted, hunted. Yet for all this, they also find and fight for moments of love and sexual fulfillment. Machado’s stories achieve this atmosphere of constant, internal and external, existential, and sometimes preternatural harassment by virtue of their invocation of the gothic as a narrative mode, yet her stories avoid the tropes—often sexist—so frequent in the best-known gothic fiction, partly by virtue of her stories’ great corporeality and sensuality. In these stories, harassment becomes haunting, and haunting, harassment.
Her Body and Other Parties makes its focus on women’s bodies clear from its title. In a January 2018 interview with Stephanie Cross for The Guardian, Machado argued that women’s “bodies have been oppressed for all of human history.” The idea of women’s bodies as sites of oppression is echoed in the title, as “and other parties” appears to equate women—parties—with their bodies, creating a nod—even before one gets to the first story—to the idea of women’s bodies being objectified. The dispassionate detachment of referring to people as “parties” pointedly reinforces a trope of so much male harassment, whereby women’s personhood flattens and falls away to men objectifying us; we seem simply bodies, parties, things. Yet the other, more positive sense of “party” also holds. For all the gothic traumas women and their bodies undergo in Machado’s stories, they also often experience moments of ecstasy. The body can become a party—a designation bereft of any individuality—but it can also be a festival site, a place where we invite others for frenzied, even orgiastic, interpersonal joy.
And this cornucopia of rapturous sex scenes—as opposed to solely featuring sex scenes representing failure or sadness—is intentional, Machado revealed in the Guardian interview. The “secret” to her compelling, credible sex scenes, she said, was “[l]etting some sex scenes be pleasurable, letting bodies be real.” Her women are not solely victims of their pain, not solely maps leading nowhere but to old and new isles of trauma; instead, their body-maps are complicated. Their bodies are allowed, and willingly seek out, pleasure, despite the pains. That “parties” is pluralized, unlike bodies, might additionally imply that Machado’s characters have multiple selves, multiple layers to their identities. To be an individual is, as Whitman famously noted, to also contain multitudes; to be a woman, Machado suggests, is to exist in a space of multiplicity, whereby the body can be many things all at once.
In many of the stories, women—and, sometimes, also men—frequently find themselves under quiet siege. And—as with the dangers that we learn, through male harassment and abuse, can never be underestimated—Machado’s women profess the importance of being cognizant of this siege, this threat. “Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make,” the protagonist of the first story, “The Husband Stitch,” says early on. In that story...