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'Her Body and Other Parties' Charts Dark Territory With Enormous Style


This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of a new book he says wowed him right from the start. It's called "Her Body And Other Parties." It's the first collection of short stories by Carmen Maria Machado. The book was recently named one of the five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Whenever I open a new work of fiction, I'm not looking for the stuff that we critics talk about - you know, a dazzling prose style or a big, important theme. What I want most is to be grabbed by a fresh and compelling way of seeing the world, to encounter a voice that makes me think, I can't wait to spend my day with this person.

That happened to me with "Her Body And Other Parties," a first collection of stories by Carmen Maria Machado, an extraordinary young writer about whom I know very little. I know she's 31. I know she lives with her wife in Philadelphia, and I know she's a true original, cross-pollinating fairy tales, horror movies, TV shows and a terrific sense of humor.

Her work reminds me at different times of such wildly divergent figures as David Lynch, Jane Campion, Maggie Nelson and Grace Paley, which is a way of saying Machado sounds like nobody but herself. The eight stories here are all about women in extremis - physical danger, psychological meltdown, treacherous love or close encounters of a ghostly kind.

In the one called "Eight Bites," an overweight woman has stomach reduction surgery, only to discover you can never really get rid of your weight. In "Difficult At Parties," a young assault victim tries to re-enter the world of human touch by watching pornography but keeps hearing the wretched internal monologues of the performers.

Steeped in pop storytelling, Machado likes to start off matter-of-factly, then open a trapdoor beneath your expectations. She does that brilliantly in the opening story, "The Husband Stitch," which is destined to be anthologized for decades. It begins with something happily down to earth, a 17-year-old girl coming onto a guy she finds attractive.

But as she tells the story of her life, she also tells us scads of other stories about dead brides, murdered couples, unhappy mothers, until her own life becomes a kind of terrifying fairy tale. Stories can sense happiness, she tells us, and snuff it out like a candle.

Now, Machado is not one of those icy writers - Angela Carter comes to mind - whose stories deconstruct fairy tales or make their subtext explicit. Rather, like Emil Ferris in her great graphic novel "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters," Machado loves horror stories for their visceral power, their way of calling up our fears. She taps into this hot psychic juice to make us feel the many ways that society tries to tame or erase women and the ways they do it to themselves.

She pays special attention to the female body, a keystone of feminist thinking ever since the groundbreaking 1971 bestseller "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Every page is charged with a sense of physicality, be it the rush of two lovers kissing, the bloody scalpel cuts of childbirth or the way that a girl who has literally begun to vanish has skin that looks, in a vivid image, more like skim milk than whole.

As you might expect, there's a lot of sex in "Her Body And Other Parties." And Machado writes well about its thrills and its dangers. Even as she gives free rein to the pleasures of the flesh, she knows that the very thing that gives a woman carnal pleasure may be risky for the rest of her. Whether she's chronicling the eerie secret of a shopping mall dress shop or riffing on the psychosexual underpinnings of "Law & Order: SVU," Machado's vision is obviously feminist and unabashedly queer.

Yet she's far too talented a storyteller to grind axes or to reduce her work to neat doctrinaire lessons. After all, our bodies aren't doctrinaire. They are what they are, and they want what they want - women, men, both, no one - often independently of our minds. Near the end of the book, a writer who resembles Machado reads her work to a group of artists.

One of her listeners, a female poet-composer, accuses her of simply recycling the old tropes of the madwoman in the attic and the angry lesbian. I suspect this probably happened to Machado along the way. Yet reading this imaginative and enjoyable collection, which charts dark territory with enormous style, wit and storytelling panache, you wonder how any listener could possibly feel that way.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "Her Body And Other Parties" by Carmen Maria Machado. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Farhad Manjoo, who has covered the tech world for 20 years and writes the State of the Art column for The New York Times. He'll tell us why he thinks technology has crossed over to the dark side.

He's been writing a series for The Times about what he calls the frightful five - Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. But he admits he's outfitted his home with every tech gadget available. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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