Carmen Maria Machado’s followed an unusual trajectory to reach me: I casually opened her collection Her Body and Other Parties, and it lit me on fire. I’ve experienced this with only a handful of writers—Diane Cook and Leanne Shapton among them—whose creativity and language are fearless and whose images are so specific and unusual that they carry heavier metaphorical resonance than something more homogenized. It also makes me worry. Can short-story collections sell? Do readers in the US want them? It seems like everyone I talk to is reading a novel. Short-story collections, meanwhile, are unfaithful to the reader, always changing from one story to the next. They bloom in your imagination for a scant 30 pages, then ask ruthlessly that you begin again and love new characters with new names and new situations—although you can always expect some couple fights. Every short story has a couple fight.
“The Husband Sitch,” a retelling of a traditional sex/death fable (albeit with more fucking) opens Machado’s collection. Although it becomes apparent which fable we’re retreading fairly soon, the story itself is so entrancing that I kept forgetting Machado’s descriptions were laced into the scaffolding of a known conclusion. It was more than enough to gain my interest. But despite being nominated for a Nebula award in 2015, it’s also the collection’s weakest piece.
Machado’s work has been called speculative fiction, a term for stories adjacent to science fiction, but without a bunch of engineer wank posturing (please note: I love engineer wank posturing). Rather than get mixed up in futuristic technology, Machado mixes in ghostly phrases like “should the virus hop the firebreak” to let us know the world she conjures in “Inventory” is slightly removed from ours, and coping with a mysterious, devastating plague. Themes of lovers succumbing to mysterious ailments and the conflicts between those lovers—husbands and wives, or wives and wives—repeat throughout the collection. There’s a motif of people having sex in every room of a home, or on the floor of an empty house.
Nestled at the collection’s center like the corolla of a rose, you’ll find Machado’s incredible novella “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU.” Published in 2013 by the American Reader, “Especially Heinous” was also included in the Huffington Post’s 2014 roundup of “The 10 Best Short Stories You’ve Never Read,” which I mostly note here so that you can read it if you are brave. “Especially Heinous” takes the form of episode synopses for 12 seasons of the popular sex-crime drama show Law & Order: SVU, and takes liberties with the show’s two main detectives, Stabler and Benson. It’s one of those stories that makes the reader break out into fits of laughter and say to their friends, “Come on. Listen to this part.” Your friends will not want to. They should anyway. If a couple fight ensues, it will be as Machado prophesied.
Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Available Oct 3