Book Club Questions: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

My friend and I had mixed reactions to this critically adored collection of short stories. It’s certainly an interesting book, and one which I would say is worth reading, even though I personally found much of it frustrating. You will probably enjoy this book most if you appreciate more nebulous writing, with a focus on ideas and images rather than character or plot.

Discussion questions below the cut!

The synopsis of the book describes it as a collection of “startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” Such violence can be intentional (“Difficult at Parties” and “Especially Heinous”), self-inflicted (“Eight Bites”), unrealized (“The Husband Stitch”), or without any identifiable culprit (“Real Women Have Bodies”). Which of these types of violence do you personally find most frightening? Do you think your own reactions to each story would change if you had grown up with a different gender? Consider how literature often is divided into female categories (romance, predominantly) and male categories (everything that doesn’t deal specifically with “woman problems”). Do you think the category-desirous book industry would classify this book as “female” or “male”? Would you be more likely to recommend this book to a certain gender? Why?

Many reviewers have described this collection as nearly being a set of horror stories. Were there any specific times you personally felt unsettled, creeped out, or genuinely frightened? If you experienced any of those emotions, why do you think those specific instances were effective at conveying horror? Feel free to discuss specific writing techniques, personal fears, or a larger social context. If you experienced none of those emotions, why do you think other people might have felt horror while reading this collection, and why was the collection unsuccessful in giving you those same emotions?

Often a lot of debate will go into the order of stories in a short story collection as the book is being assembled by the author, editor, and publisher. For instance, Machado’s editor wanted the collection to begin with “The Husband Stitch,” as he felt it would make an impressive start, and Machado herself wanted to end with “Difficult At Parties,” because she felt it would end the collection on a note of hope. Do you think the final order of the published stories is a strong one, or would you have rearranged them? How would changing the order of the stories have changed your reading experience of the collection?

With the exception of “Especially Heinous,” almost every story in this collection has a first-person narrator. Personally, I would be hard-pressed to describe the actual personality of any story’s narrator, aside from calling the narrator from “The Resident” anxious. Someone might make the argument that the relative anonymity of the narrator better allows the reader to insert themselves into the place of the narrator and that this was the author’s intent. Why do you think the narrators are so lacking in specificity? Was it authorial intent or just bad writing? If you do think it was authorial intent, then what was Machado trying to accomplish and was it effective? (Alternately, if you think the narrators were full of personality and I completely missed it, support your counterargument with examples.)

The main characters of these stories trend towards passivity–strange things happen to them, outside of their control, while the few choices they do make are either glossed over (“Inventory”) or portrayed with a weighted inevitability which suggests there was no real choice to begin with (“The Husband Stitch” and “Eight Bites”). Do you think this style was effective for the types of stories Machado was trying to tell? Did you ever find yourself irritated or bored, and if so, why? What parts of the stories did you find most memorable? Why?

How are the relationships between characters in these stories conveyed to the reader, especially intimate relationships? What features of the relationships are described in detail, and which are glossed over or ignored? What is your opinion on the author’s depiction of sex throughout the collection, specifically in terms of its centrality to romantic or even non-romantic relationships? Also consider this depiction of sex in the larger context of the “complicating clarity” that asexuality and aromanticism have brought to discussions of sex, romance, and attraction.

In “Especially Heinous,” the doppelganger Henson tells the following story to the DA: “The sixty-fifth story […] is about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop, but they won’t, so we can’t.” Why do you think Law and Order: SVU is such a popular show, given that it concerns itself specifically with “sexually based offenses” which “are considered especially heinous”? What do you think prompts the overwhelming popularity of crime shows in general? When we think about crime shows, there tends to be a divide between the critically applauded shows (LutherHannibalThe Fall) and the “junkfood” shows (Law and Order: SVUCriminal Minds). What creates the divide between these two types of shows? (Consider both form and content.) What determines whether the investigation of suffering is “art” or “sensation”?

Consider this quote from Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write:

Recently, my son said to me after seeing a ballet on television: “It’s beautiful but I don’t like it.” And I thought, Are many grown-ups capable of such a distinction? It’s beautiful, but I don’t like it. Usually, our grown-up thinking is more along the lines of: I don’t like it, so it’s not beautiful. What would it mean to separate those two impressions for art making and for art criticism?

Did you like this book? Did you find it beautiful? Is there a difference between your answers? Whether there is or there isn’t, explain why. Feel free to discuss your larger preferences and experiences in reading and in art in general.

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