Sleepwalker on a Windowledge

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
    Serpent’s Tail, 245 pp, £8.99, January, ISBN 978 1 78125 953 5

In the acknowledgments to Her Body & Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado strikes a note of respect for her predecessors that isn’t far from abasement: ‘Every woman artist who has come before me. I am speechless in the face of their courage.’ The stories in the book don’t really match this, their attitude being closer to a productive impertinence. In ‘Mothers’, for instance, the narrator watches her girlfriend Bad smoking weed: ‘Her body shuddered along an invisible curve, and the smoke crawled out of her mouth a limb at a time; an animal.’ The narrator, who is perhaps called Good, accepts the pipe for the first time: ‘I felt my whole self loosening, my mind retreating to a place somewhere around my left ear.’ In their altered state the women take a tour of Bad’s old Brooklyn neighbourhood and visit the museum, where they see a table so long it never seems to end, laid with suggestive and flowering plates. A few days later, they’re swimming in the warm water of an island off the Georgia coast, their relaxed chat implicitly referring back to the museum visit.

‘The ocean,’ she said, ‘is a big lez. I can tell.’

‘But not one of history,’ I said.

‘No,’ she agreed. ‘Of space and time.’

This isn’t quite the impact Judy Chicago wanted to make with her monumental installation The Dinner Party, commemorating women ‘of history’. Being speechless in the face of courage needn’t rule out a little mockery of earnestness.

Similarly the title of the book, and a biographical note that ends by mentioning that Machado lives in Philadelphia ‘with her wife’, seem to promise an exclusive concentration on women loving women, when there is a surprising amount of heterosexuality described here, even celebrated. Perhaps this testifies to a nuanced sense of the status of different parts of the book. The title, the cover and its copy are parts of a public performance, with a certain responsibility to testify politically, perhaps above all to the possible existence of an American woman’s wife, so recent historically (in June 2015 same-sex marriage rights were extended to all fifty states, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges), so shallowly rooted in law. In the book’s acknowledgments is a tender appreciation of Machado’s wife as a person (Val Howlett, also a writer) rather than a miraculous legal entity. Inside the stories no party lines need be observed.

Readers waiting for indictments of the patriarchy, or even a single oppressive male character, will have to contain their disappointment (there are some oppressive male presences on page 195, but subsumed into metaphor: ‘I did not turn around to look at the sky but I could visualise it as clearly as if I had: clouds roiling upon us like men at a bar, suffocating, and us laughing, together, away’). In an earlier story, there is a dry indulgence of men’s objectification of women as the narrator’s co-workers pass a cigarette back and forth.

‘Hips,’ Chris says. ‘That’s what you want. Hips and enough flesh for you to grab onto, you know? What would you do without something to hold? That’s – like – like –’

‘Like trying to drink water without a cup,’ Casey finishes.

I am always surprised at the poetry with which boys can describe boning.

The least sophisticated story is ‘Eight Bites’, in which the daughters of a woman who never put on weight (and who never ate more than eight bites of anything, just enough to avoid hurting a hostess’s feelings) all have weight-reduction surgery in turn, some sort of superior liposuction that returns them to an ideal shape, the best shape of their lifetimes. The narrator holds out against the temptation as long as she can, trying the eight-bites method herself but finding it impossible not to eat another eight bites, then another, and then finishing what’s left in the pot on the stove. She looks back at old photographs, seeing quite clearly that her fears in the past were unreal: it was having a daughter that ruined her figure, the baby’s passage through the birth canal compared to ‘a heavy-metal rocker trashing a hotel room before departing’. Her stomach was the television set hurled through the window.

After the operation she becomes aware of something in her house, listening and breathing. She tries to talk to it but gets no answer. She asks her sisters if they experienced anything similar, and their response has the patterning of a folk tale.

‘Yes,’ says my first sister. ‘My joy danced around my house, like a child, and I danced with her. We almost broke two vases that way!’

‘Yes,’ says my second sister. ‘My inner beauty was set free and lay around in patches of sunlight like a cat, preening itself.’

‘Yes,’ says my third sister. ‘My former shame slunk from shadow to shadow, as it should have. It will go away, after a while. You won’t even notice and then one day it’ll be gone.’

It isn’t quite that simple, for the narrator. It’s possible to feel an affinity with past shame, repentance for the impulse that took a knife to it.

In the narrator’s exchanges with her daughter, Cal, now grown up and grown away, the conflict seems pat, almost doctrinaire.

She kept talking. I stared at the receiver. When did my child sour? I didn’t remember the process, the top-down tumble from sweetness to curdled anger. She was furious constantly, she was all accusation. She had taken the moral high ground from me by force, time and time again. I had committed any number of sins: Why didn’t I teach her about feminism? Why did I persist in not understanding anything?

More gracefully managed is a lovely interpolation in the passage that introduced that startling image of the baby as vandal: ‘difficult, sharp-eyed Cal, who has never gotten me half as much as I have never gotten her’. In this case dysfunctional grammar doesn’t just describe a dysfunctional relationship but is pulled into acting it out, what with those mutually dependent rejections, interlocking negatives that can’t be extricated from each other.

‘Eight Bites’ would seem a stronger performance if it didn’t follow a much richer, more ambiguous exploration of body-image issues. Even this story’s title is deceptive – ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ sounds like a slogan protesting against a fashion industry that caters for human stick insects, imposing on the imagination, male and female, norms that are anything but normal. Machado begins her story in a shopping mall dress shop where the narrator works (compulsively smoothing the clothes that a discontented co-worker compulsively rumples). Women are disappearing from this society, not in the civic sense, dropping out of view, but literally becoming invisible – ‘going incorporeal’.

No one knows what causes it. It’s not passed in the air. It’s not sexually transmitted. It’s not a virus or a bacteria, or if it is, it’s nothing scientists have been able to find. At first everyone blamed the fashion industry, then the millennials, and, finally, the water. But the water’s been tested, the millennials aren’t the only ones going incorporeal, and it doesn’t do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away. You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.

As in ‘Eight Bites’ there’s a sense of residual presence, a partial being lingering on a threshold, stranded between worlds.

The women in the book, whether involved with women or with men, take pleasure in sensual collision, impatient rather than taking their time: ‘I feel his half hardness against me. I beg him – “No teasing” – and he obliges.’ There is as much joy in the clashing of surfaces (real women also have edges) as in the meeting of minds or souls. Tenderness can come later: ‘“I love you,” I say. It’s the first time I’ve said it, and it tastes strange in my mouth – real but not ready, like a too-hard pear.’ One especially deceptive story, ‘Inventory’, masquerades as a chronological list of sexual encounters, the equivalent in prose, perhaps, of Tracey Emin’s tent (Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995):

One man. Did some sort of hard labour for a living, I can’t remember what exactly, and he had a tattoo of a boa constrictor on his back with a misspelled Latin phrase below it. He was strong and could pick me up and fuck me against a wall and it was the most thrilling sensation I’d ever felt. We broke a few picture frames that way.

The story reveals itself as an oblique account of an epidemic: ‘I met her at a community meeting where they taught us how to stockpile food and manage outbreaks in our neighbourhoods should the virus hop the firebreak.’ There’s great skill in the way Machado nudges stories into genre without losing the wider implications of their openings. Sometimes she nudges a story back again, or leaves it balanced on the boundary, poised like a sleepwalker on a windowledge.

‘The Resident’, for instance, starts like ‘Inventory’ with an implied promise of self-revelation. A writer called C––– M––– sets off for a residency at an artists’ colony to work on her first novel. The colony is in the P––– Mountains, ‘where I had attended Girl Scout camp in my youth’. The mention of this camp is obviously more than casual, but at first blush might be there to establish the gender of the narrator who has just ‘kissed my wife goodbye’. In fact this story, the only one to address issues of sexual politics, slyly burlesques them. As she drives, the narrator idly fantasises about what her old campmates would make of her progress: ‘If only those girls could see me now: an adult, married, magnificent in my accomplishments.’ Even now she wants the approval of her Girl Scout cohort, though they had been anything but supportive of her ‘predilections’ at the time.

Still, she’s a thoroughly egalitarian character herself, as she demonstrates when the car is pulled over by a police officer with a strange red patch near his lip, like a fever sore ready to burst.

He had a wedding ring, and so, barring any recent tragedies, there was a spouse who had seen this mark as recently as this morning. I imagined her (you may think me presumptuous to assume that his spouse was a woman, given my own particular circumstances, but there was something in his demeanour that suggested to me that he had never touched a man without anger or force or anxiety, and even now he touched the ring unconsciously with his thumb, suggesting affection, maybe even an erotic memory) being a woman entirely unlike me; that is, she was a woman unafraid of contagion.

There’s deadpan comedy in that ungainly, overstuffed parenthesis, and the artificial open-mindedness of the politically correct. Yet in other circumstances she’s not above making snap judgments. At the artists’ colony, the first person she meets says a single word (‘Hello’). That’s enough. ‘He sounded like a drinker, and possibly a homosexual. I took an immediate liking to him.’

No doubt at some artists’ retreats there is high-level debate about aesthetics between practitioners of different media. Not here. After she has, rather unwillingly, read an extract from her work in progress, C––– gets some feedback from Lydia, the resident composer. ‘“Writing a story where the female protagonist is utterly batty. It’s sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done … don’t you think? And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Do you ever wonder about that? I mean, I’m not a lesbian, I’m just saying.”’ C––– defends her practice of writing concealed autobiography with the same freedom that men are allowed (it’s only a display of ego if women do it, apparently), until Lydia’s partner, Diego, intervenes, making grand statements about the artist’s need for an ego in a piece of conversational manspreading that might actually be tact in disguise.

The comedy of the confrontation is made uneasy by the reader’s suspicion that C–––’s writing is rather feeble, if the index cards that she uses to sketch out the structure are any guide. ‘Lucille enters the art festival.’ Hmm. ‘Lucille’s girlfriend breaks up with her because she is “difficult at parties”.’ But the real business of the story, and its great pleasure, is the game of Grandmother’s Footsteps that Machado plays with the genre of the Gothic. Though the trick of finessing frisson and anticlimax goes back at least as far as Northanger Abbey, Machado’s control is remarkable. The stream of genre cues never lets up, without quite tipping over into definitely supernatural territory. The name of the artists’ colony is Devil’s Throat, though once upon a time it was called Angel’s Mouth. On her way there C––– M––– stops for petrol, and has a slightly eerie conversation with the morose-looking adolescent behind the counter, whose jaw is adorned with a constellation of pustules in the shape of the Andromeda galaxy, their tips a yellowish green. He’s watching a television show that seems slightly off, sinister but with a laugh track. When she leaves, she touches her face and is surprised to feel tears there, tears the temperature of blood.

As she drives on, her thoughts become metafictional in their own right:

It was like the beginning of an old film, a vehicle weaving along roads to reach its destination behind white-lettered credits. As the credits ended, the car would pull up to an old farmhouse, where I would get out, untying a white scarf from my hair and calling the name of my old friend. She’d emerge with a wave, and the laughter and rapport we’d share carrying my suitcases into the house would in no way foreshadow the gruesome plot whose wheels were already turning.

All this before she even arrives at Devil’s Throat, where she’s billeted in a cabin called Mourning Dove.

She runs over something, and finds underneath it one half of a laterally bisected rabbit. Days later the other half turns up, or at least another half-rabbit does. The photographer asks her fellow residents to sit for portraits, taken with an old-fashioned apparatus, and on the developed plates the subjects seem unambiguously dead. C––– M––– has intimations of disease, both internal (vomiting, fever) and on the surface of the body, in the form of ‘abjections’: ‘They grew large and had segments within, so when I lanced them they crumpled chamber by chamber, like a temple from which an adventurer is feverishly tearing’ – the Indiana Jones reference here has its own part to play in the teasing genre game, a delicate puncturing function.

*

In a couple of stories Machado lavishes an extra layer of fantastical patterning on a single panel in the design. In the rather downbeat fantasy ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, there’s a lyrical, almost delirious listing of the dresses sold in what seems to be an ordinary clothes shop in a suburban mall:

Bright teal slips and dusky pink thunderpuff, the Bella series, the one the colour of bees. Mermaid cuts in salt-flat white; trumpet-style in algae red; princess gowns in liver purple. The Ophelia, which looks perpetually wet. Emma Wants a Second Chance, the exact shade of a doe standing in a shadow. The Banshee, with its strategically shredded, milk-coloured silk.

In ‘Mothers’ the lushly embroidered passage restages The Dinner Party in a fantasy of domesticity, with a child who is both real and imaginary, in the Indiana woods: ‘Beyond the table, there is an altar, with candles lit for Billie Holiday and Willa Cather and Hypatia and Patsy Cline.’ An old chemistry textbook now features a liturgical calendar, its red-letter days including ‘the Exaltation of Patricia Highsmith, celebrated with escargots boiling in butter and garlic and cliffhangers recited by an autumn fire; the Ascension of Frida Kahlo with self-portraits and costumes; the Presentation of Shirley Jackson, a winter holiday started at dawn and ended at dusk with a gambling game played with lost milk teeth and stones’.

Still no mention of Judy Chicago despite all this namechecking, but then mothers are often taken for granted. ‘The Husband Stitch’, the first story and one of the most striking, treats Angela Carter in a similar way, using her work as a table on which to display new plates. Carter’s subversions of the canon (above all the fairy stories shapeshifted in The Bloody Chamber) have themselves become canonical, ripe for subversion. The materials of Machado’s story are drawn not from fairy tales but urban myths, and have the same relation to their more respectable forebears as the rank creature rooting through your bins does to the glossy fox glimpsed cavorting in a field. The frame-tale for ‘The Husband Stitch’ is the story usually known as ‘The Green Ribbon’, retold by Alvin Schwartz for In a Dark, Dark Room, and Other Scary Stories, published in 1984 for a series called I Can Read! and plausibly part of the mental furniture of Machado’s childhood.

A woman with a green ribbon around her neck, which she refuses to let anyone touch, recounts not only her life story but a number of modern folk tales. In one of the retellings Machado gives a list of variant endings, as if this was philology rather than storytelling. She ends by exercising a passive-aggressive style of authority over the tale: ‘I don’t need to tell you the moral of this story. I think you already know what it is.’ Sometimes she claims less authority (‘I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten the rest of the story’), sometimes more: ‘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 consistent pattern is for the retellings to refuse the element of sexual politics, the rage and pain latent in the stories that Carter brought so forcefully to the foreground. The clock seems to be turned back to a time before Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment Freudianism of the 1970s, even before Marie-Louise von Franz’s Jungian readings of the late 1950s, where the ‘complete stagnation’ of many female characters in fairy stories, in comparison to the active quests of the male ones, is interpreted as ‘a time of initiation and incubation when a deep inner split is cured and inner problems are solved’.

This is true above all of the story’s treatment of the ‘husband stitch’ – an extra stitch rumoured to be inserted by the surgeon after an episiotomy, for the supposed sexual convenience of the new mother’s husband. Machado’s narrator doesn’t pass this on as a rumour but as something that really happened. Her version is quite close to Sheila Kitzinger’s experience (in France, in 1956) as recounted in her memoir A Passion for Birth: the casual conspiracy between men making choices for a woman who is right there in front of them but denied a say with the smug culminating boast from the surgeon: ‘Nice and tight, everyone’s happy’ (‘I’ve sewn her up good and tight’ in Kitzinger). It’s a primal scene of misogyny, though Kitzinger’s husband didn’t understand what he was being asked. In Machado’s story there are no consequences for anyone involved, either in the short term or the long. There’s no trauma and no vengeance.

What saves ‘The Husband Stitch’ from being a composite shaggy dog story is the inclusion at various points of instructions for reading it aloud. How’s this for a calling card, for the first lines of a book?

(If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices:

ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same …

ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.)

It’s a great comic drumroll, but one that passes through self-mockery to arrive at something stranger. The instructions become increasingly harsh and alienated: ‘(If you are reading this story out loud, give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.)’ It’s a very curious effect, this neutralising of the disturbing element in the constituent stories, which then emerges in a distorted form in the no-man’s-land of a parenthesis, an aside delivered in a muffled shriek.

Where Angela Carter gave a new voice to her source material, Machado seems to be dancing on the grave of oral culture. Or perhaps Machado has substituted a new goal for the Jungian ‘subtle rightness’ proposed by von Franz’s The Feminine in Fairytales as the goal of female individuation – call it a subtle wrongness.