Edges and Intestinesby Elizabeth Block
Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories
(Graywolf Press, 2017)
At a time when women are still expected to disassociate from their bodies and defer to straight male desire as if it were the only natural impulse, Carmen Maria Machado’s prose moves directly inside the female body with an entirely different drive. Not only does Machado comment on the broad strokes of being female, she bravely dissects its guts, desires, gritty sexuality, fluids, and longings. She offers and often exposes the imperfect female person, the one that hardly fits into the commercially viable male gaze. She resists psychosexual representation (although sometimes mother does enter into play) for more speculative horror and fantasy. The grotesque seems all too appropriate, yet somehow also understated in Machado’s deft prose. Here the horror seems neither generic nor stereotypical in its presentation. While each individual story stands strikingly independent (while often overlapping in tone), the overarching ache of intruding men and impossible standards imposed by them upon women render queerness the only and obvious option for women. Such a choice is both otherworldly and yet beyond question for Machado—the proposition is hard to resist—even within the renderings of these fantastic, often abstract, sometimes matter-of-fact sexual encounters.
To be sure, however, this is neither utopian lesbian nor women’s fiction. Women are not necessarily reliable. Women are also mothers, and that doesn’t always translate into good enough ones. In this sense, Machado is wise beyond her years, capturing many contradictions. She distills a message of a dangerous world with deep self-reflection and awareness rather than slogans or simplistic observations. She understands that conventional fiction cannot cut it to get that job done.
A small group of not too long-ago independent editors/publishers have championed (and still do) the work of lesbian, feminist, gay, or queer authors dealing with provocative and controversial themes, such as Amy Scholder and Ira Silverberg, who founded High Risk Books. Machado’s book, perhaps circles back as a Millennial launch of a new generation of stylistic risk-takers. Machado travels to edges and intestines, uncomfortable behaviors, and ripped away body parts. Rebecca Brown’s 1990 The Terrible Girls, which did not get nearly the attention it deserves, comes to mind when reading Machado. The stunning experimental
1989 film Tongues Untied, by Marlon Riggs, also pops up for its pioneering engagement with the multiple taboos of AIDS and the black male body.
It is interesting to ponder how Machado’s book would be received in the 1980s – 1990s or the early 2000s, when pre-gay/trans liberation, non-Caucasian, and queer writings were even more marginalized from the publishing/media world. And it remains delightful to witness an innovative fiction writer like Machado stand tall on The National Book Award longlist. Graywolf Press, which has been adding such authors to the NBA list (including Maggie Nelson’s National Book Critics Circle Award for The Argonauts), keeps elevating the relevance of non-traditional and risk-taking forms of literature to the upper ranks of publishing. As new media storytelling takes over iPhone X screens and everything else, Graywolf certainly emphasizes the necessity of breaking “creative writing” conventions to stay relevant and exciting. There is nothing so thrilling as spreading old-fashioned, acid free paper through non-obvious fingertips.
In one chapter, “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” Machado proposes eight series worth of the famous procedural television show bibles. An industry standard pitch tool, Machado’s bible would not likely sell to a major television network, as it is haunting poetic vision, rather than plot synopsis. It is meticulous pontification, multiple perspectives, subtext, and off topic conversation between the show’s protagonists, Stabler and Benson. It suggests subdued conversions in the midst of descriptions of horrific crimes, uncomfortable confessions between the two, and sidebar prose poetry. It persists as painstakingly as one might see in a streaming television writers’ room, but with a twist—it would be a novelists’ writing room (if that weren’t an oxymoron).
In Season 10, Episode “Selfish”:
The medical examiner can’t bring herself to admit that sometimes, she’s the one who wants to be cut open, to have someone tell her all of her own secrets.
In Season 12, Episode “Penetration”:
“No.” “Yes.” “No.” “No?” “No.” “Oh.”
“Especially Heinous” is relevant in today’s overall cultural storytelling conversations, particularly as streaming cable television and episodic web series have been compared to the new form of novel writing. Some of these most interesting stories emerge from cable and streaming sites. Writers like Jill Soloway, with her TV adaptation of I Love Dick or Sarah Treem’s The Affair, written with French new novel stylistics, show dynamic expansion for American TV screenplays. Even Phyllis Nagy’s exquisitely adapted script for Carol is a hybrid screenplay, and if read closely, remains instructive for a discussion of Machado’s screen story inventions (The Price of Salt set on an altar in a Machado story). Machado’s “Eight Bites” is poignant without waxing sentimental. It feels like reading a memoir, the writing is so intimate. It details the story of one of three sisters having gastric weight loss surgery. I cannot recall ever reading anything like it, and its implications sear not only flesh, but the burning toxins it releases from charred female innards and thoughts. I am hard pressed to expel an unwritten image of excess intestines being butchered, moreover, for the sake of a fine figure, the very same excess nature demands for women to be able to withstand childbirth. A detailed and what feels like a personal account of being overweight, a cautionary tale of fat shaming, this story travels the depths of the body while navigating a society that still insists that normal is skinny and white-skinned. Yet she never has to spell it out. Machado understands and commands the body so well it proliferates the text, and the reader is left with gasps and sighs.
Who knows where we got it from, though—the bodies that needed the surgery. It didn’t come from our mother, who always looked normal, not hearty, or curvy, or Rubenesque or Midwestern, or voluptuous, just normal. She always said eight bites are all you need to get the sense of what you are eating.
Not that genetics should even matter to reconcile one’s inner and outer worth. We are a culture that values far too dearly resemblance over substance. After Machado’s literary surgery, the only rehabilitation is to stand up and move towards activism. Carmen Maria Machado’s book is poetic and powerful, a profound call to action. Machado also, like the most thoughtful of fiction writers, understands it is a genre that, at its finest, staggers between blindness and sight.
Elizabeth Block is author of the novel A Gesture Through Time (Spuyten Duyvil). Also a filmmaker, she is currently writing a narrative feature film.