Sunday Review: Her Body and Other Parties
a short story collection from Carmen Maria Machado
[ Graywolf Press / 2017 / 248 pp ]
“That may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with, but I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.”
‘The Husband Stitch’, Her Body and Other Parties
This collection came out last week and my feed has been flooded with reviews that I haven’t read. I wanted to go into it not expecting anything, and all I knew was: Magic, realism, women, queer women—a list that’s more or less my dating profile. When I started reading I thought I knew what I’d bought, and why. I was prepared. (Narrator voice: she was not prepared.)
The fourth story in the collection is titled, ‘Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU’. It’s written in the form of 272 episode descriptions of several seasons of L&O: SVU, which if read all together make for a narrative. The narrative is more or less: officer Benson and officer Stabler investigate murders, most often of women. Most often of prostitutes. The ghosts of these women appear in Benson’s bedroom with bells for eyes. Stabler hears a heartbeat in the ground. Doppelgängers of the two are sabotaging their lives. Stabler’s wife was once kidnapped by aliens, but then it turns out: she wasn’t. A DA falls in love with Benson. The ending is, I believe, a happy one—though the word ‘happy’ seems entirely misplaced when talking about Machado’s writing.
That’s the narrative, more or less, but the story itself it something far more expansive. It’s partly down to the format: each episode has a title, and the description can be a single sentence, can also be three paragraphs. It sounds a simple enough set-up, but what it allows Machado to do is (and I don’t want to overstate this, but whatever, I’m in love with this collection so here goes) phenomenal and bends an entire genre of fiction. It clicks micro-fiction to fanfiction to flash to the novella, mechano elements that then work together in making a wholly new kind of monster. Some episodes fit into the linear narrative, the one about Benson’s girls with bells for eyes, the one about Benson’s wife and the beating floor, and others are just: Season 1, Episode 11: “Stabler and Benson will never forget the case where solving the crime was so much worse than the crime itself.”
Or, somewhere in season 5, “Benson doesn’t think about the moon very often, but when she does, she always undoes her top four buttons, tilts her throat up to the sky.” Or, “Stabler runs into the street and stares up at the sky. ‘Stop,’ he begs. ‘Stop reading. I don’t like this. Something is wrong. I don’t like this.’”
The third story of the collection, ‘Mothers,’ reflects on how love and obsession and also abuse can haunt and distort one’s understanding of the past. A story within that story is a segment that’s several pages long, describing each corner of a shared living space. Again, the kind of writing I never thought I’d want, but now it’s all I think of. My favourite one, the fridge:
“Pickled cucumbers and green beans crowding ridged jars, two glass containers of milk, one good, one sour, a carton half-and-half, a near-black eggplant, […] sweet Italian peppers tense as hearts, soy sauce, bloody steaks hidden away in the dry fold of paper, leaking shamefully, a cheese drawer with balls of fresh mozzarella floating in their own milky water broth, […]”
–and on it goes. The way the narrating character obsesses over her memory of her previous life—while nursing a phantom child—stands in stark contrast to how blurry her memories are of the abuse itself, reduced to a single moment in a school bathroom. To a crack in a wall. The baby cries and she doesn’t know why.
And that, I think, is a good summation of most of the stories in Machado’s collection. They give you something you haven’t had before, and then leave you very, very thirsty. I say “stories,” which make them sound singular, which they are not. I mentioned I hadn’t read any reviews, but I’d seen them come by. I remember a title (not the author, forgive me) that spoke of stories within stories. And to that I would like to add: and each about something you want, something you fear, and something that’s both at the same time.
Would recommend to: people who’ve just moved away from home, lost someone, found someone. All women.
To read: while the tv is on but on mute, in a room full of plants, no-where near bells.
Visit Graywolf Press to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Yael van der Wouden
Five Things with Aisha Sabatini Sloan
1. The last thing that made you smile.
At the office where I work our freezer was recently stuffed with off brand otter pops. Every day when I realize they are there it is a new occasion to smile.
Also, I smiled or cried or both at the picture of the line of hundreds of people waiting to turn themselves in for statue toppling in Durham, NC.
2. A secret.
I like kombucha.
3. The last thing you wrote.
An essay about a weird sensation in my neck and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s interest in anatomy.
4. Favourite city.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
An Anita Baker cd, a binder full of my mom’s recipes, a yoga mat, the moon stone I got when I first started dating my girlfriend, the portable Pema Chodron, my dad’s photo and video archives, a jar of mango lime pickle. I guess that’s more of a survival kit.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of two essay collections, The Fluency of Light (U. Iowa Press, 2013) and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit (1913 Press, 2017). She is a contributing editor at Guernica and a staff writer for Autostraddle.
I Will Love You in the Morning
a poem from Cameron A. Lawrence
“ when I am
a bird on the horizon and disappear into you”
It can be a challenge to reinvent and repeat one image, to keep a momentum going through the tight space of a poem. Lawrence’s poem ‘I Will Love You in the Morning’ gives us birds, birds, birds and I want even more, even after “one bird divides into three”. I appreciate the mixture of flight, miniscule things, and the physical—there’s this sort of boundless echo that comes with the sounds of “blurred”, “quieter”, and “distance”. With the lack of punctuation, we can start and stop at any point in the poem, truly how “[our] beginning becomes [our] end”.
Visit Typo to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
Move aside, NYC. The 505 Is Your New Short Story City
a letter from Alice Yang
I’m going to be upfront: I am biased about the southwest. I grew up in high plains of Colorado, five years in the humid greenery of the mid-west, and sought out the drought-prone burned ochre of Tucson, Arizona. Place-based narratives skew towards the big-city coasts, leaving our super-sunny patch as bereft of stories as it is of water (as in, there are some but it’d be really hard to drown in them). That was why I was immensely tickled by Alice Yang’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Move aside, NYC. The 505 Is Your New Short Story City.’ By reframing “classic” NYC moments in Donald Antrim’s ‘Another Manhattan,’ to take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Yang alternately supports a theory of universality—people are people everywhere, while also flavoring the narrative with something new and exciting. The story could conceivably work anywhere. But the story is also subtly spiced up by a simple shift of location. I’m 100% behind Yang’s larger point, one which I would argue applies to writers as well as publishers, that narratives in new locales will bring diverse and interesting stories to the national scene. If people are shopping for new literary locales, may I also suggest the 520?
Visit Blue Mesa Review to read the letter.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
a poem from Safia Elhillo
“& where i’m from is where i’m from & not
where i was put”
I am always returning to this idea of alternates. Alternate existences, alternate realities. Not in a butterfly effect way, but seen through the experience of disapora, of immigration and existing within social structures that constantly define your existence as other. Safia Elhillo’s poem ‘Alternate Ending’ is succinctly expansive, evoking notes of family, geography, and interpersonal distance.
“ i’m still on a date
& the words say something to me in arabic
fall backwards down his throat”
Visit The Offing to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
Six Poems from Frayer
a poem from Marie-Andree Gill, translated by Kristen Renee Miller
What is billed as six poems by Marie-Andree Gill reads like a rock broken into six pieces. They’re formed from the same magmas, they have the same veins and chemistries, but they are dissimilar in shape and image and weight. They are together and they are not, and even if fitted back together you would still see the lines of fissure.
There isn’t much context, but there is community here—“we cut our teeth on weaponry”; “women embroider / your future on moccasins sold / to tourists”; “we have hundreds of years / of cataclysm ahead.” It is a community of survival, though the poems aren’t about helplessness; they reflect the world around them. A world that has eradicated countless indigenous peoples, to the point where there are fewer and fewer pieces left to join together.
A difficult internal and external landscape remains: “the sun fuck[s] with the lake”; “it’s time to sober up / from the thirst for certain waters”; “the raptors waiting to devour / the future.” Without titles, the poems lie on the page like they’ve always been there, like you’ll pass them by on the ground and keep walking and they’ll continue to lie there for hundreds of years, slowly breaking down, becoming sand.
Visit The Offing to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
Untitled 2014 - 2015
a photoseries from Juul Kraijer
Often we paint Medusa as a woman with relentless control, destroying someone with only so much as a glance in their direction. Her snakes are terrifying not just because they’re unusual offshoots from her roots, but because we’ve only seen them related to a kill, overtaking another body until it can only exist in stone. But Juul Kraijer offers a different perspective, one where the gorgon-like figure finally appears to rest. The intense light of the face is always juxtaposed against the stark black background and snakebodies that get increasingly darker the more they fan out of focal range. We see the face like a pool—each snake rippling only highlights the stillness at the center.
Each new frame gives us view of the snakes interlocking, bunching, and masking the face, seemingly more in conversation with each other than the body to which they’re attached. Yet the figure appears unbothered in almost every frame—notice how the eyebrows don’t arch & the mouth sits squarely & the nostrils remain unflared. Many of these could be sleepstates because the snakebodies cover the eyes so completely that little light could pass through. I imagine them as dreamguards, swimming around the body to address the surroundings minute by minute. I want this to be night. The expectation that the figure will lie still for extended periods of time & let the snakes roam seems selfish & unlikely to be upheld, no? I wonder how long this unraveling goes on, how many shapes they’re allowed to make before discomfort arrives.
Untitled 77, 80, & 81 bring fascinators to mind: the snakes graze the head & side of face like a sweep of netting or feathers, which feels like an unexpected gentleness. But 82 highlights a slight conflict to me. The tiny peek of downturned eye under the snake sliding over the lid to me implies awareness—the figure is not fully willing to shake the snake off course and look us straight on, but they feel the weight. Even the snake turned toward their chin feels predatory; it is feathery light now in its almost-touch, but could soon press down more. If the pool wanted to pull their ripples back into order, I couldn’t blame them. Sometimes you need to coil your universe closer.
Visit LensCulture to view the photoseries.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse