“If you read this story out loud”: Carmen Maria Machado’s Stories

A former first-year writing student who has transferred to another university to become a writer shared Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” with me.

I fell in love with the story and the writer almost immediately, reading the story so quickly I had to throttle myself repeatedly — pausing and then looping back to re-read. I recalled the first time I read Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We,” my gateway into her An Untamed State.

Machado’s stories are more than compelling; they are precise, incisive, and disturbing.

Fortunately, Machado has collected eight short stories in Her Body and Other Parties, a volume that has garnered praise and awards but also establishes her gifts for storytelling, blending and blurring genres, and making the lives and terrors of being a woman central to the universes she conjures.

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The stories weave together deftly meta-fiction (the volume begins parenthetically, “If you read this story out loud…”), horror, science fiction/fantasy, and experimentation (although this isn’t an exhaustive list) while also remaining true to the art of storytelling. The reader is always compelled by what John Gardner called a “vivid and continuous dream.”

Melissa Febos’s examination of “Intrusions” steers quickly toward literature, John Cheever’s “The Cure.” Throughout this haunting personal essay, Febos returns again and again to fiction — film and TV specifically as well as literature.

As she navigates her own disturbing experience with a voyeur, Febos confronts the reader with the perverse normalcy of other women’s stories against the backdrop of fictional recreation (Brian DePalm, Alfred Hitchcock, and “[o]ne of the many friends and acquaintances whom I began interviewing a few months ago about being peeped on”):

It is also a narrative that exonerates men. The more plausible it seems that women are always performing, the less indictable the watching. If we want it, where is the crime? Better yet, make us seductresses, inverting the men’s role even more extremely: They are our victims! One of the most shared qualities of all predators is their self-conception of victimhood.

And then:

Women are bombarded not only with suggestions that we are always performing for men but also with prescriptions for doing so, from the moment we are able to take direction. “A man’s presence,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “is dependent on the promise of power he embodies . . . A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.” Conversely, “How a woman appears to a man can determine how she is treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.”

Febos eventually confronts her “peeping tom,” and even overcomes her hesitancy to seek out the police (having been at that time a sex worker). But similar to other women she interviews, Febos discovers moving as her best option in a world where men in power view women as complicit, a prop, and where her role as victim creates a repeat performance as object, as the intruded, chillingly examined in Adrienne Rich’s “Rape”:

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

Just as Febos’s story and the stories of other stalked women are terrifying, they provide a counter-narrative to fiction:

A big difference between the two cultural narratives about peeping — that of the harmless romantic lead and that of the violent — is that one is much truer than the other. … Many of those television narratives boast of being pulled from real headlines, which gives the false impression that women are mostly murdered by sociopathic strangers. In reality, more than half of female victims are murdered by their romantic partners. … The documented frequency with which women are murdered by their lovers is why the pop-culture narratives in which the line between danger and romance gets purposefully blurred are most troubling to me.

The real-world violence and fear women live with and against pervasively also contrast the ultimate failure of pop fiction’s romance with peeping and stalking: the use of “women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity,” returning to Cheever:

The Cheever story is also interested in women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity — though in this case featuring conflict rather than collaboration. When the narrator of “The Cure” spots his peeping neighbor with his daughter on a train platform, the apparent purity of the daughter persuades him not to confront the peeper. … We are meant to be impressed by how deeply the protagonist is affected by the neighbor’s violation, and by his impending divorce. Alone in the house he usually shares with his wife, our protagonist’s behavior is weird, but not unsympathetic. Bachelorhood and the intrusion on his privacy seem to have agitated a deep well of aggression whose contents require some receptacle or outlet. He’s not a creep; he is reclaiming the masculine presence that Berger describes as “dependent on the promise of power he embodies,” and passing on the baton of victimhood. The woman’s fear assures him that he is no longer the object, but the subject.

And then back again to the real world:

One of the most common denominators in the stories I heard from women was of other men dismissing the peeping, as has long been done with so many forms of abuse. Freud himself considered the incest reports of his female patients to be fantasies. … We have all fielded this kind of response to one thing or another. We are exaggerating. We are overreacting. We are villainizing hapless men. And besides, it’s flattering.

Febos’s masterful essay ends with “I am still waiting,” chilling the reader the same way I felt by the end of Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.”

Experimental and long for a short story, “Especially Heinous” offers “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” through each episode over twelve seasons, including each original episode title and Machado’s own rendering of that episode’s synopsis.

This story is challenging in many ways, but it also provides a companion to Febos’s “Intrusions” while illuminating how fiction can rise above Febos’s powerful critiques of fiction’s persistent failures about the lives and terrors of women.

“Especially Heinous” builds its own narrative over the course of 272 faux-synopses, simultaneously breathing life into the horrors of inhabiting a woman’s body and dismantling the often trite and lifeless tropes of pop culture:

“DISROBED”: A disoriented, naked, pregnant woman is discovered wandering around Midtown. She is arrested for indecent exposure. …

“REDEMPTION”: Benson accidentally catches a rapist when she Google-stalks her newest OKCupid date. She can’t decide whether or not to mark this in the “success” (“caught rapist”) or “failure” (“date didn’t work out”) column. She marks it in both. …

“GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.

“RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit.

“PURE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit.

Reading “Especially Heinous” and all of Machado’s stories prompt me toward sentiments repeated in Fabos’s essay:

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked. …

“What the ever-loving fuck?” she commented.

Machado and Fabos, through fiction and non-fiction, illuminate and confront the gross negligence of a world in the hands of men who refuse to listen, who persist in driving their words and images over and through the terrors of being a woman as if those men are the only things that matter.

When you finish Machado’s collection, return to the opening parenthetical words, “”If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices,” and then say aloud the last directions as directed: “ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.”

Can you hear it?

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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